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Latest trends on bridging the equity gap

SRI International recently published research entitled National Trends for Low-Income Students 2008-2014 that examines the impact of an IB education on post-secondary success for low-income students in the US. SRI is an American non-profit research institute in California and received funding from the IB’s Bridging the Equity Gap Project to conduct the study.

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The research findings demonstrate that low-income students who participate in IB coursework, or who complete the IB’s Diploma Programme (DP), enter, persist and graduate from college at a higher rate than low-income students who do not. The research study incorporates findings from three sources: IB exam data from the IB information system (IBIS); National Student Clearinghouse college participation data; and qualitative data collected during five site visits to high schools serving large populations of low-income DP students.

The data shows that while the percentage of low-income students that take DP courses and the full IB Diploma has grown significantly over the past seven years, a persistent participation gap continues to exist.

Too often schools still utilize and perpetuate policies around DP implementation that deny opportunities for many students to participate and succeed in a programme that prepares students well for post-secondary education and life-long learning.

Dr. Philip E. Berhnhardt, assistant professor at the Metropolitan Sate University of Denver, captured this issue well in an online article on the barriers to advanced courses for under-represented students:

In many [US] schools and districts, IB, Advanced Placement (AP), and other advanced-level classes can be characterized by two common dynamics: Participation is typically limited; “gatekeepers” control access. If we are serious about increasing opportunities for students to experience advanced-level classes, we need to focus on school-based barriers that commonly restrict opportunity. It is not enough for districts to establish “open course enrollment” policies. While this action is certainly necessary, a number of other factors, which are often ignored, need to be publicly addressed so that open enrollment policies can be authentically implemented (Bernhardt, 2014).

What are the practices and policies that inspire access and success in the DP for under-represented students?

One of the most valuable findings in the National Trends Brief, apart from the relationship between DP participation and college entrance, persistence and graduation, is the authors’ focus on five schools that have a DP cohort that reflects their school’s ethnic and economic diversity. While the SRI researchers were unable to examine the efficacy of practices in these five schools, they were able to report on educators’ and students’ perceptions of practices that may be making a difference to bridge participation gaps.

SRI International’s preliminary lessons learned from these case study schools suggest possible actions for other schools to take that would like to expand access for unrepresented students to participate in the DP.

Schools with equity in their DP self-reported that the following practices are making a difference in their participation rates:

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Outreach and admission

  • Remove barriers to entry and make IB the default pathway (opt-out rather than opt-in policies)
  • Actively recruit low-income students with targeted outreach to under-represented students and their families

Teaching and learning

  • Aim for mastery and deeper learning within the DP curriculum (cover fewer topics in more depth)
  • Allow for flexible deadlines, increase scaffolding and rethink homework
  • Examine trends in student performance to identify barriers to success and modify instruction accordingly
  • Emphasize academic and study skills to prepare students for college success

School-wide student supports

  • Institute opportunities for tutoring and formalize peer supports
  • Establish wrap-around services to prevent or respond to factors that might interfere with students’ ability to focus on academics
  • Build a culture of high expectations for all students

Post-secondary supports

  • Create systematic college planning processes for all students.
  • Identify resources to facilitate college access for low-income students.
  • Pro-actively provide information to parents about college

In fact, led by school leadership teams and utilizing many of the interventions described above, pilot schools participating in the Bridging the Equity Gap project have experienced significant growth in the DP participation of low-income students (as defined by participation in the free and reduced lunch program or FRL). After only the first year of collaboration, the percentage of FRL students participating in DP courses and the full Diploma doubled across the pilot schools.

Read the National Trends Brief.

Read the full report.

In order to continue to inspire changes in school practice and policies around access, excellence and equity, we need to increase communication between our IB school communities. Please consider sharing your excellence and equity success story with us at the IB. Please contact Asheesh Misra at


Bernhardt, P. E. (2014, November 7). Academic Placement: Creating Transparency, Equity, and Well-Defined Practices. Retrieved from AVID: Adventures in College & Career Readiness 

Caspary, K., Woodworth, K., Keating, K., & Sands, J. (2015). International Baccalaureate: National Trends for Low-income Students 2008-2014. SRI Education , 70.