How Online Learning Can Close the AP Participation Gap

A University of Iowa program lets students take online courses for free.

National Journal
Sophie Quinton
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
Sophie Quinton
Jan. 26, 2015, 8:44 p.m.

Last year, Court­ney Durst was the only stu­dent at her high school to take AP Eng­lish Lan­guage and Com­pos­i­tion. When she was stress­ing about her home­work, none of her friends could re­late. “We’re not that full of AP courses, col­lege courses,” she says of her school.

Durst is a seni­or at Eddyville-Blakes­burg-Fre­mont Ju­ni­or/Seni­or High, a 7-12-grade school in rur­al Iowa. The high school has just 255 stu­dents, many of whom grew up on farms. It doesn’t of­fer any of the non­profit Col­lege Board’s Ad­vanced Place­ment courses that many lar­ger schools provide for col­lege-bound high­school­ers. But every year, a hand­ful of stu­dents are able to take AP courses any­way.

A Uni­versity of Iowa pro­gram called the Iowa On­line AP Academy has been giv­ing stu­dents like Durst ac­cess to free, on­line Ad­vanced Place­ment courses since 2001. The on­line learn­ing part­ner­ship off­sets some of the dis­ad­vant­ages that can come with be­ing a high-achiev­ing stu­dent in a small, isol­ated school dis­trict, provid­ing the chance to take chal­len­ging aca­dem­ic courses that many schools can’t of­fer. Over the past five years, an av­er­age of 430 stu­dents across Iowa have en­rolled in courses through IOAPA each year.

IOAPA was cre­ated with rur­al dis­tricts in mind, but any ac­cred­ited school in Iowa can par­ti­cip­ate. On­line courses can be pro­hib­it­ively ex­pens­ive, and it can be hard for even mo­tiv­ated teen­agers to stay on top of their work without a teach­er and class­mates present. So IOAPA was de­signed to ad­dress both chal­lenges.

The uni­versity cov­ers the cost of 12 AP courses offered by a com­pany called Apex Learn­ing. Par­ti­cip­at­ing schools must put a staff mem­ber in charge of lo­gist­ics and give par­ti­cip­at­ing stu­dents a ment­or teach­er at the school. They must also sched­ule time dur­ing the school day for stu­dents to work on the on­line class. The co­ordin­at­or and ment­or can log in­to the Apex sys­tem to mon­it­or the stu­dents’ pro­gress.

Stu­dents can only sign up for an IOAPA course that their high school doesn’t of­fer, and no more than six stu­dents can sign up for the same course at a giv­en school. That last re­quire­ment is meant to en­cour­age schools with lots of in­ter­ested stu­dents to of­fer their own AP courses, says Kristin Flanary, IOAPA’s ad­min­is­trat­or.

Eddyville-Blakes­burg-Fre­mont is too small to sus­tain an AP pro­gram, says Donna Bo­hl­mann, co­ordin­at­or of the dis­trict’s tal­en­ted and gif­ted pro­gram. But she likes to make sure stu­dents bound for four-year col­leges take at least one on­line AP course be­fore they gradu­ate.

“They really need to un­der­stand the rig­or that’s go­ing to be in­volved in a four-year pro­gram,” Bo­hl­mann says. She likes the fact that IOAPA classes chal­lenge stu­dents from day one. There’s no teach­er for stu­dents to ca­jole in­to giv­ing an ex­ten­sion. And there’s no need to ad­just les­son plans to meet the needs of less-pre­pared stu­dents.

Be­cause the classes are tough, Bo­hl­mann doesn’t let just any­one sign up. She zer­oes in on the school’s tal­en­ted-and-gif­ted pro­gram, looks at PSAT scores, and some­times steers stu­dents away from sci­ence classes. “You really have to be a driv­en, in­de­pend­ent stu­dent to handle the rig­or” of AP chem­istry, phys­ics, and bio­logy, she says. Every year, between two and sev­en Eddyville-Blakes­burg-Fre­mont stu­dents take an on­line AP class.

Stu­dents have oth­er op­por­tun­it­ies to chal­lenge them­selves, too: The dis­trict of­fers a small num­ber of dual-en­roll­ment courses, which al­low stu­dents to earn com­munity-col­lege cred­it. Dual-en­roll­ment courses are par­tic­u­larly use­ful for stu­dents who want to go to an in-state pub­lic col­lege, be­cause the cred­its trans­fer to both com­munity col­leges and state uni­versit­ies.

Provid­ing ac­cess to ad­vanced courses be­gins with of­fer­ing them — wheth­er that means dual en­roll­ment, Ad­vanced Place­ment, on­line, or off­line op­tions. But it doesn’t end there. Dis­tricts also need to high­light those courses and work to pre­pare as many stu­dents to take them as pos­sible. Oth­er­wise, only teen­agers with mo­tiv­ated par­ents, or whose who can mo­tiv­ate them­selves, will sign up.

In Mar­shall­town, Iowa, the loc­al high school has about 1,500 stu­dents and of­fers sev­en AP courses in ad­di­tion to IOAPA. But ad­vanced aca­dem­ics aren’t a big pri­or­ity for the dis­trict, which has many low-in­come stu­dents and struggles to meet ba­sic stand­ards on state tests.”Most of our fo­cus, by ne­ces­sity, has to be bring­ing those un-pro­fi­cient or lan­guage-learner kids up to pro­fi­ciency,” says Susan Fritzell, head of Mar­shall­town high school’s ex­ten­ded learn­ing pro­gram.

In Fort Dodge, north of Des Moines, the high school is slow­ing los­ing its AP of­fer­ings. As AP teach­ers re­tire, they aren’t be­ing re­placed, says Di­ane Pratt, the school’s tal­en­ted-and-gif­ted ad­viser. She wor­ries that there’s a stigma at­tached to AP courses — that they’re viewed as something elit­ist. She gets the sense that coun­selors are steer­ing stu­dents in­to dual-en­roll­ment courses in­stead.

After all, go­ing to uni­versity used to be something only elites did. Both Durst’s par­ents went to com­munity col­lege. Her dad’s a pas­tor and a wire­less tech­ni­cian, and her mom works at a su­per­mar­ket. She says that in the Eddyville area, there aren’t many par­ents who are law­yers, or doc­tors, or hold ad­vanced de­grees.

When her par­ents were grow­ing up, she says, go­ing to col­lege wasn’t a big deal. It’s dif­fer­ent now. “I think we’re all kind of in the same boat,” Durst says of her class­mates, “where our par­ents didn’t go to col­lege, and now we’re ex­pec­ted to.” She has her eye on a small, four-year col­lege in north­ern Iowa.

Next Amer­ica’s Edu­ca­tion cov­er­age is made pos­sible in part by a grant from the New Ven­ture Fund.

What We're Following See More »
Russians Refer to "Verbal Agreements" with Trump
6 hours ago

"Two days after President Trump’s summit with Russian President Vladi­mir Putin, Russian officials offered a string of assertions about what the two leaders had achieved. 'Important verbal agreements' were reached at the Helsinki meeting, Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, told reporters in Moscow Wednesday, including preservation of the New Start and INF agreements," and cooperation in Syria.

Trump Was Shown Proof of Russian Interference Before Inauguration
7 hours ago

"Two weeks before his inauguration, Donald J. Trump was shown highly classified intelligence indicating that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia had personally ordered complex cyberattacks to sway the 2016 American election. The evidence included texts and emails from Russian military officers and information gleaned from a top-secret source close to Mr. Putin, who had described to the C.I.A. how the Kremlin decided to execute its campaign of hacking and disinformation. Mr. Trump sounded grudgingly convinced, according to several people who attended the intelligence briefing. But ever since, Mr. Trump has tried to cloud the very clear findings that he received on Jan. 6, 2017, which his own intelligence leaders have unanimously endorsed."

Interior Department Inspector Opens Probe Into Zinke
11 hours ago

"The Interior Department’s internal watchdog has opened a formal investigation into a real estate deal involving a foundation established by Ryan Zinke and developers including Halliburton Chairman David Lesar, which was first reported by Politico, according to a letter sent to lawmakers Wednesday."

With Census Looming, Trump Nominates Director
11 hours ago

With preparations for the 2020 Census underway, President Trump has nominated a director of the agency. Steven Dillingham currently serves as director of the Office of Strategic Information, Research, and Planning at the Peace Corps. Previously, he served as Director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Among his challenges will be navigating the thorny political issue of including a citizenship question on the survey.

Trump: High IQ People Loved the Putin Meeting
19 hours ago

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.