Skip to content

Who takes advanced courses? 


 A blue button that reads    



The MERC Equitable Access and Support for Advanced Coursework study was commissioned by the Policy and Planning Council in December of 2019. This study will occur in two phases.

Phase One - Regional Analysis of Advanced Coursework Policies and Patterns

Phase one will focus on a regional analysis of advanced coursework policies and patterns and will include a secondary data analysis and policy analysis.

Secondary Data Analysis

MERC researchers will analyze student course taking and performance data from the Virginia Longitudinal Data System (VLDS) over the past 10-13 years in the MERC region. This will help us understand the landscape of advanced course taking and how it varies by students’ race, SES, gender, EL, and disability status.

RQ1: What are the trends, patterns, and disparities in advanced course taking in the MERC region?
RQ1a: Who receives gifted and talented services in the MERC region?
RQ1b: Who takes algebra I in middle school in the MERC region and how do students perform?
RQ1c: Who takes honors, advanced placement, dual enrollment, and IB courses in the MERC region and how do students perform in these courses?
RQ1d: What are the patterns of advanced courses taking in the MERC region from elementary through high school and how does this relate to postsecondary outcomes?

Policy Analysis

We will review federal, state, and division level policies related to the provision of advanced coursework. This will help us understand the policy infrastructure promoting or inhibiting equitable access and support to advanced courses.

RQ2: What are the policies focused on advanced course taking in the MERC region and how do they relate to equitable outcomes in advanced coursework?
RQ2a: What are the national, state, and division level policies guiding the provision of advanced coursework in the MERC region?
RQ2b: How do MERC divisions identify students for gifted services?
RQ2c: How do these policies relate to equitable access to advanced coursework?

Phase one will take place from the fall of 2020 through the fall of 2021.

Phase Two - Student Perspective and School Practices

Phase two will focus on understanding student perspectives and school practices and will include a student survey and multiple case study.


We will conduct a regional survey of middle and high school students to explore how they make decisions about enrolling in advanced courses or not, and what barriers and supports they perceive. To inform the development of this survey, we will convene an advisory council of middle and high school students from all MERC divisions to discuss potential survey items.

RQ3: How do secondary students in the MERC region make decisions about taking advanced courses and how are those decisions mediated by students' ability beliefs, subjective task values, and perceived barriers and supports?RQ3a: What are students' expectancies for success in advanced coursework?
RQ3b: How do students perceive the attainment, intrinsic, and utility value of advanced coursework?
RQ3c: What costs or barriers do students perceive when making decisions about taking advanced courses?
RQ3d: What supports do students perceive when making decisions about taking advanced courses? What additional supports do they perceive as potentially helpful?
RQ3e: How do socializers in a student's environment mediate their decision-making processes for enrolling in advanced coursework?
RQ3f: How are students' decision making processes for enrolling in advanced coursework mediated by their concerns about COVID-19?

Survey data collection will begin as early as the fall of 2021.

Case Study

We will select six schools from throughout the MERC region (two elementary, two middle, and two high schools) demonstrating promising practices in promoting equitable enrollment and success in advanced courses as evidenced by the secondary data analysis and survey responses. These schools will serve as sites for a multiple case study in which we will interview students, teachers, counselors, administrators, and parents to learn about school level practices promoting equitable enrollment in advanced coursework.

RQ4: What formal and informal practices do MERC division schools use to promote equity in advanced coursetaking?
RQ4a: What are the practices for enrolling students in advanced coursework? What role do counselors, teachers, and administrators play? What role do students and their families play?
RQ4b: How are school level practices informed by federal, state, and division level policies related to advanced coursework?
RQ4c: What role do socializers play in students' decisions to enroll in advanced courses?
RQ4d: How do traditionally underrepresented students experience advanced courses?
RQ4e: What are the school level practices that promote student enrollment, persistence, and achievement in advanced coursework?
RQ4f: How has COVID-19 informed school practices for promoting advanced course taking?

Case study data collection will begin in approximately the spring of 2022.

A blue banner that reads

All dashboards are built by MERC researchers using Google Data Studio.

A banner image linking to MERC's dashboard depicting participation in gifted programs, Algebra I, and AP in the MERC region

This dashboard depicts data from the Virginia Longitudinal Data system exploring participation in advanced coursework across K-12 in the MERC region in the five years prior to COVID-19. Users will be able to explore how participation in gifted programs in elementary school, Algebra I in middle school, and Advanced Placement (AP) classes in high school varied by student gender, race, economic disadvantage, disability status, and English Learner status. 


A banner linking to MERC's dashboard depicting AP and Dual Enrollment participation in VA high schools

This dashboard depicts data from the Virginia Department of Education exploring participation in Advanced Placement (AP) classes and exams as well as dual enrollment for all high schools in Virginia in the 2020-2021 academic year. Users can filter by the demographic enrollment in Virginia high schools to see how it is related to advanced coursework participation for based on student race, ethnicity, and economic disadvantage.


Read reports from the different phases of this study.

A blue research report cover that reads

This report analyzed data from the Virginia Longitudinal Data System (VLDS) for the five years prior to COVID-19 to explore who was identified as gifted, who took Algebra I (or other high school level math courses) in middle school, and who took Advanced Placement (AP) courses in high school. It depicts advanced coursework participation disparities by student demographics, including intersectionally.


This is the cover to the MERC research brief about Dual Enrollment classes

This research brief explores three questions: 1) What are Dual Enrollment classes? 2) Who takes Dual Enrollment classes? and 3) What strategies promote greater access to Dual Enrollment? An accompanying podcast episode is linked in the research brief.


This literature review explores five questions about equity in Advanced Placement (AP) classes: 1) What are AP classes? 2) Who enrolls and succeeds in AP classes? 3) Why do disparities in AP matter? 4) What factors contribute to disparities in AP participation and performance? 5) What policies and practices help to address disparities in AP access, enrollment, and performance?


This literature review explores five questions about gifted and talented (GT) programs: 1) What does it mean to be "gifted?" 2) Who receives gifted services? 3) Why does this mater? 4) What factors contribute to disparities in gifted services? and 5) What strategies help to address disparities in gifted education? 


Who gets identified as gifted in elementary school? Who takes Algebra I in middle school? Who takes Advanced Placement classes in high school? In this episode we spoke with Andrea Herndon (Hanover County Public Schools), Beverly Fludd-Flanagan (Petersburg City Public Schools), and Chris Parthemos (Virginia Commonwealth University) about two new dashboards from MERC that depict advanced coursework participation across K-12 in the MERC region and Virginia. Listen to learn more about how these dashboards inform the work of local educators and click here to access the dashboards.


This episode pulled together experts from throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia for a discussion about who takes dual enrollment classes in high school. Guests include: Lori Dwyer (Interim Vice President of Academic Affairs at Reynolds Community College), Jenna Lenhardt (Recruitment Specialist for the VCU School of Education), David Naff (MERC Associate Director), Patricia Parker (Director of Transfer Virginia for SCHEV and VCCS), Taylor Reahard (Dual Enrollment Instructor at Goochland High School in Goochland County Public Schools), Allen Riddle (Director of Dual Enrollment at Reynolds Community College), and Addisyn Winston - 12th grade student at Goochland High School in Goochland County Public Schools).


Jenna Lenhardt, Mitch Parry, David Naff, and Virginia Palencia from the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Education discuss findings from a recent MERC report titled Analyzing Advanced Placement: Making the Nation's Most Prominent College Preparatory Program More Equitable. In our conversation we discussed the history and trajectory of AP, enduring racial and socioeconomic disparities in the program, the short and long-term implications of those disparities, and what policies and practices help to address them.


Abstract · How can we promote equitable access and support for advanced coursework across K12 education?

Tomika Ferguson (Assistant Professor, VCU School of Education, George Hewan (Assistant Principal, Fairfax), Alison Koenka(Assistant Professor, VCU School of Education), Amy Jefferson (PhD Student, VCU School of Education), John Marshall (Principal, Henrico) David Naff (MERC Assistant Director), and Morgan Saxby(Elementary School Teacher, Chesterfield)from the MERC Equitable Access and Support for Advanced Coursework study team discuss the importance of ensuring that all students have access to accelerated learning opportunities throughout K12. We provide key takeaways from the literature as well as an overview of our collaborative research design for this MERC study.



Abstract · Do Latinx Students Have Equal Access to AP Classes? - 4:9:21, 9.08 AM

We spoke with Dr. Virginia Palencia from the VCU School of Education about her dissertation research focused on access to Advanced Placement (AP) courses across the Commonwealth of Virginia.


MERC Seminar: How Can We Promote Greater Access to Advanced Coursework Across K-12 Education?

 This MERC seminar from April 2022 includes an overview of research on equitable access to gifted programs in elementary school, Algebra I in middle school, and Advanced Placement and Dual Enrollment classes in high school. It also includes a featured breakout session focused on increasing access to advanced math courses for middle school students in Richmond Public Schools. Access the slides from all breakout sessions given by Goochland, Henrico, and Richmond Public Schools by clicking here.


Research-Based Approaches to Expanding Access and Success in Advanced Coursework Across K-12

David Naff (VCU), Rich Ashburn (Henrico), Amy Jefferson (VCU), Chris Gannon (Fairfax), Olivia Exum (Goochland), share research and strategies for promoting greater equity in gifted and talented programs in elementary school and Advanced Placement (AP) classes in high school at the 2021 MERC Conference.


Promoting Equitable Academic Opportunity from Kindergarten to College

Erica Ross (VCU), Chin- Chi Chen (VCU), David Naff (VCU), Brandon- Lee Lucas, (VCU), Terrie W. Allsbrooks (Petersburg), Charles Spain Jr. (Petersburg), Dorothy Wu Nelson (VSU), and Jada Brooks (VSU) discuss how to promote access to rigorous coursework and postsecondary education for all students at the 2021 MERC Conference.


Teddy Stripling, University of Chicago Lab School


Ciana Cross

Sandra Saji


    Morgan Saxby, Teacher, Robious Elementary School
    Adrienne Blanton, Principal, L.C. Bird High School
    Jenna Darby, Research and Evaluation Specialist
    Carolyn Waters, ESL Teacher at Falling Creek Middle School

Beth Fowler, Advanced Programs and Equity Specialist

Renee Ferrell, Director of School Counseling, Goochland High School

Olivia Exum, AP Spanish Teacher, Goochland High School 

Andy Armstrong, Assistant Superintendent of Business Operations

Andrea Herndon, Coordinator of Gifted Education and Advanced Studies

Amanda Kramer, School Counselor, Atlee High School

Tyrontay Nichols, English Teacher, Patrick Henry High School

Alice Scheele, AP Biology Teacher, Patrick Henry High School

Rich Ashburn, Gifted Resource Teacher, Adams Elementary, Harvie Elementary, and Laburnum Elementary

John Marshall, Principal, Douglas Freeman High School

Greg Lyndaker, History Teacher, Henrico High School

Beverly Fludd-Flanagan, Gifted and Accelerated Instructor

Gwen Price, Director of Research, Testing, and Evaluation

Decardra Jackson, STEM Coordinator

Candace Veney-Chapin, Manager of College and Career Pathways

Camilla Battle, Counselor, John Marshall High School

Laura Faulcon, Manager of Alternative Education

Carmen Ward, Director of Counseling, Armstrong High School