AP chart rural non rural states

The percentages of students, Class of 2007,
who took at least one Advanced Placement test

Chart: Daily Yonder, with data from College Board

There is an achievement gap between students in rural and non-rural schools, and it’s due, in significant part, to unequal course offerings — with effects that extend long past graduation.

One third of all U.S. schools are rural; twenty-one percent of public school students are enrolled at rural campuses. Though rural/small town high school graduation rates are higher than those in urban areas, according to the U.S. Department of Education, rural grads are less likely to go on to college. The National Education Association has found that a greater proportion of students in rural public schools are “low-performing.”

But why? A report in Education Week found that a major difference between rural and non-rural student performance is that so many rural schools lack Honors courses and Advanced Placement (AP) curricula.

Both Honors and AP courses are considered college-preparatory; in fact, a student who completes an AP class, then takes the AP test and scores 3 or higher usually obtains college credit for high school course work. It makes sense that students who’ve been exposed to college-level academics in high school will be more likely to seek higher education and to succeed at college.

Daily Yonder compared the proportion of students who took the Advanced Placement Test in two sets of states, one more heavily rural, and the other primarily urban. (The rural states: Alabama, Alaska, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, West Virginia, and Wyoming. The urban states: California, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Texas.)

The table above shows the percentage of each state’s public high school students (class of 2007) that took at least one AP Exam.

Differences are striking. Each rural state shows AP testing rates far below the national average (24.9%), while every urban state except New Jersey exceeded the national average. Public school students in Maryland and New York were six times more likely to be studying for Advanced Placement (and thus have college prospects) than were students in Louisiana.

composition book

“My international studies journal from sophomore year in high school”
Franklin Regional High School, Murrysville, PA

Photo:Gina Marie

Even the College Board, which administers both the SAT test and AP program, has recognized the lack of Advanced Placement in rural schools. Rosyn Sandy profiled the Mary Walker School District in Springdale, Washington, a small rural district where, according to the school counselor, “Poverty, geographic isolation, and lack of academic confidence erode our students’ sense of possibilities.” Even so, the district has instituted AP, opening college prep classes “to all students who wanted to accept the challenge.”

The College Board suggests a Pre-AP strategy to boost academic rigor. If students are not challenged prior to their freshman high school year, success in AP courses is unlikely. Through “vertical teaming,” teachers of a core subject, such as English, work together to prepare students for Advanced Placement classes. Teams include both high school teachers and teachers from middle schools that feed into the high school.

Further, district support is necessary for AP success in rural schools. School districts must invest in AP by paying for teachers to attend training sessions during the summer. District-wide, parents and students will be more likely to back programs that the local school administration has endorsed.

There are other ways for students to take AP courses — through online programs such as Apex Learning. However, instituting college preparatory work in rural high schools can do more than benefit college-bound students. It has the potential to reshape rural education by upgrading standards and changing expectations.

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