Date of Award


Document Type

Campus Access Dissertation


Instruction and Teacher Education


Curriculum and Instruction

First Advisor

Rhonda B. Jeffries


The purpose of this comparative case study was to use qualitative research methods to identify the barriers and supports to African American students choosing to take honors and AP courses. Specific research questions included:

1. How do qualified African American students arrive at the decision to enroll or not enroll in honors and AP courses?

2. In what ways do different internal and external factors play a role in the decision making process?

3. How might understanding their motivations provide important contextual understandings of these decisions?

This study examined course-taking decisions among qualified Black high school students who chose to participate in honors and AP classes and those who opted out of advanced classes. The study was significant in light of the large body of research about the underrepresentation of African American students in advanced course. This problem has wide implications for addressing educational opportunity gaps. In fact, some researchers assert that underrepresentation of Black students in advanced classes has lasting negative impacts on both individual students and on society as a whole.

Research discusses many externally and internally generated factors that can influence African American students' academic decisions. External factors include inaccessibility, socioeconomic status, and systemic barriers. Internal factors include cultural identity conflicts, learning style differences, and social isolation. Although researchers as a whole agree that these factors account for the lack of African American representation in advanced levels of high school course work, few have employed the authentic voices of African American students in regards to their academic decisions.

I took a qualitative approach in this comparative case study with the intention of using authentic voices African American student voices to look for commonalities and differences between those students who choose the rigorous advanced track and those who do not. Approaching my research from both an interpretive and a critical stance, I chose to examine closely the decisions of six diverse African American students, allowing each of these smaller cases to inform the larger case. The site of the study was a large and diverse suburban high school. Theoretical frameworks that informed my research were symbolic interactionism and critical race theory.

Methods included semi-structured interviews with the six students and focus group discussions with two groups of parents and the school guidance counselors. In addition, I examined student data, recruitment and retention data related to African American students, and registration and enrollment policies. Through cross-case analysis, a number of external and internal themes emerged, each of which could pose a barrier or a support, depending on the student and the particular circumstances. External themes include tracking, rigor, peer pressure, teacher involvement, and parental involvement. Internal themes included know-how, identity, and drive.

In the research findings, I presented the individual cases, each narrative based on a single student's story of his or her educational journey and decision to enroll or not enroll in honors and AP courses. Then I discussed the internal and external factors that play a role in the decision making process and how understanding the students' motivations may provide important contextual understandings of these decisions.

I concluded that external factors have greater influence on students' course-taking decisions, especially teacher and parental involvement. Educators can use this knowledge to inform their practice through staff development.