Rural Districts and Advanced Placement Courses

An August 2017 report from the Education Commission of the States and the College Board explores rural students’ access to and participation in Advanced Placement (AP) courses, as well as their performance on AP exams, relative to students who reside in urban and suburban areas. Below we summarize some key findings from the report, which relies on data collected across 15 school years (i.e., 2000-01 to 2014-15):

  • Access to AP courses has increased significantly for rural students. In 2001, only 56% of rural high school seniors had access to at least one AP course; by 2015, this percentage had increased to 73% of high school seniors.
  • While access to AP courses improved for rural students (73%), it still lagged that of urban (92%) and suburban (95%) students in 2015.
  • Of the rural high school seniors who had access to at least one AP course in 2015, only 31% took an AP exam. This compares with 40% of urban and 39% of suburban high school seniors.
  • On average, rural students earned an AP exam score of 2.6, compared with 2.73 for urban students and 2.98 for suburban students in 2015. Note that AP exams use a standardized score that ranges from 1 to 5, with a score of 5 indicating the highest level of performance. Scores of 3 or higher are often awarded college credit by post-secondary institutions. [Read more…]

The report does not provide a detailed analysis of the reasons behind rural students’ outcomes beyond explaining that rural schools have difficulty hiring and retaining high-quality teachers and often lack sufficient technology infrastructure.

For rural districts with sufficient infrastructure, distance learning programs and self-paced courses can facilitate access to diverse AP course offerings in the absence qualified teachers. College Board-approved distance learning programs, such as the Apex Learning Virtual School and The Virtual High School, enable students to participate in a range of AP courses that are taught online by experienced AP teachers. Self-paced courses that provide AP instruction using an online curriculum are another option for rural districts. While most self-paced courses require some support from a classroom teacher, they can help inexperienced teachers by offering valuable background information as well as prepared lessons and assessments.

Regardless of experience, teachers are more likely to be effective if they have access to instructional materials that are closely aligned to the AP course frameworks and include supports, such as teaching guides, detailed lesson plans, and online professional development.

A key strategy that all districts, including rural districts, can use to help improve AP outcomes is to use instructional materials that are aligned to the College Board’s course frameworks.

For each AP course, the College Board publishes a course framework that specifies the knowledge and skills that the course should cover and that will be assessed on the course’s AP exam.  While there is variation across courses, the frameworks contain content standards which are generally organized in terms of big ideas or themes that are then broken into learning objectives and essential knowledge statements.  In addition to content standards, each framework includes a set of skills or practices that students are required to learn.

In  partnership with the College Board, Learning List has reviewed AP instructional materials for alignment to the content standards as well as to the skills or practices contained in the course framework for each of the courses listed in Table 1.

Table 1. AP Courses for Which Learning List Has Reviewed Instructional Materials

The College Board used Learning List’s reviews to select the materials for the 2016 and 2017 Example Textbook List for each of the courses listed in Table 1. Educators can use Learning List’s reviews to distinguish among the materials on the Example Textbook Lists, and identify the instructional materials that are aligned to course frameworks, meet their teachers’ instructional needs, and fit with the district’s existing technology infrastructure best. Tools on allow educators to compare the key attributes and standard-by-standard alignments of multiple materials for the same AP course.

In addition to lacking qualified AP teachers, many rural districts lack administrative resources, such as curriculum staff and AP coordinators, that support AP teachers in delivering high-quality instruction. In large suburban and urban districts, trained curriculum staff, AP coordinators, and experienced AP teachers are often available to fully vet the instructional materials for AP programs and support teachers in using the selected materials. Learning List’s reviews of AP materials can help level the playing field for rural districts that lack such administrative support. Learning List’s alignment reports identify the specific citations (i.e., pages, lessons, videos) in each material that are fully aligned to each standard. Like a GPS through the material, the alignment reports guide teachers to the parts of their materials that teach all of the knowledge and skills the course framework holds students accountable for learning.

AP materials also tend to be quite expensive, and smaller, rural districts often do not get the volume discounts offered to larger suburban and urban districts. So, mistakes in selecting materials may be particularly costly. In addition to reviewing publisher-produced AP materials, Learning List has reviewed some AP open-educational resources (OERs) that are available at no cost to districts. OERs may help districts seeking to introduce or expand AP offerings without incurring expenses for instructional materials.

While the gap has narrowed over time, the August 2017 report shows that significantly fewer students in rural districts have access to AP courses, take AP exams, and score as high on those exams as their urban and suburban peers. Recognizing those trends, College Board partnered with Learning List to provide the AP community with independent reviews of AP materials. Learning List’s reviews have informed the College Board’s selection of materials for inclusion on the 2016 and 2017 AP Example Textbook Lists. Similarly, the reviews can inform districts’ selection of AP materials.  Moreover, Learning List’s reviews help teachers use AP instructional materials most effectively to ensure that students are learning the standards and skills that will be tested on the AP exam.

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