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
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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.

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