The availability of advanced-placement courses (AP) decreases as schools get smaller and farther from major cities, a University of New Hampshire study finds.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article is excerpted from a new report published by the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire. For a copy of the complete study, including citations and notes on data sources, visit the University of New Hampshire Scholars’ Repository.
Whether or not a district offers AP courses is one indicator of equality of educational opportunity. In districts without AP access, even the most gifted students would not likely have the opportunity to earn college credit in high school.
We find that rural students have considerably less access to AP courses than their peers in more urban areas: 47.2 percent of rural school districts have no students enrolled in AP courses, compared with only 20.1 percent, 5.4 percent, and 2.6 percent of town, suburban, and urban districts, respectively.
In addition, access to AP courses among rural districts varies considerably according to the size and relative remoteness of the district. We find less AP access in smaller districts and in districts located farther from urbanized areas. Table 1 (at the top of this article) shows AP access rates in fringe (closest to urbanized areas), distant, and remote (farthest from urbanized area) rural districts, sorted by larger and smaller populations. Gaps in AP access are evident when comparing larger and smaller population districts within each gradation of rurality. Remoteness is also uniquely related to AP access. For example, large, remote rural districts have approximately the same AP access as do much smaller, fringe rural districts.
Even when examining only those districts with some access to AP courses, enrollment in AP across lines of urbanicity is uneven. The percentage of students enrolled in at least one AP course in such urban and suburban districts is approximately double the percentage of such students in town and rural districts. Therefore, even in districts that have AP access—those that have found a way to offer AP to at least one student, thus making it easier for more students to take AP courses— disparities in enrollments still exist. Thus, rural students are far less likely to take AP coursework than their urban and suburban peers.
Suburban and Affluent Districts Have Higher Rates of AP Success
Suburban districts exhibit the highest rates of AP success. In suburban districts, the average percentage of AP-enrolled students who have passed at least one AP exam is 45.9 percent, compared with 36.4 percent, 32.3 percent, and 32.2 percent for students in urban, town, and rural districts, respectively. Such disparity in success is even greater across lines of poverty, as school districts in the most affluent (top) quartile of the United States exhibit an average success rate (49.3 percent) more than double that of districts in the poorest (bottom) quartile (24.3 percent). Figure 1 illustrates the interactions between urbanicity, poverty, and rates of AP success in school districts.
Although in poorer districts there is little difference in success rates by urbanicity, in affluent districts, success rates vary greatly. In districts in the most affluent quartile, urban and suburban districts average 60.7 percent and 59.0 percent success rates, respectively, compared with only 44.7 percent and 44.9 percent in town and rural districts, respectively. In short, affluence can counteract geography. More affluent town and rural districts have higher rates of success than do poor urban or sub- urban districts.
We find that rural school districts are much less likely to offer AP courses, and overall AP enrollment is lower than in urban districts. These findings have worrisome implications regarding equal access to educational opportunity, as some studies have documented the academic benefits of simply engaging in such rigorous coursework. Moreover, students may face a financial burden by not taking AP course-work, both by not earning college credit that could enable them to graduate sooner, and by being more likely to pay for additional remedial coursework when beginning college. The disparities in AP access follow a clear trend, with smaller and more remote rural districts exhibiting low rates of AP access. In addition, because town and rural districts have both lower AP enrollment and success rates, the probability that a rural student receives AP credit is likely even lower than these statistics on AP success alone would indicate.
Several explanations are possible for these disparities. Rural districts may find it difficult to offer rigorous coursework because of insufficient numbers of capable students, lack of appropriate teacher staffing, or other logistical concerns owing to small, isolated populations. Regardless of the causes, the result is that fewer rural students leave high school having experienced college-level coursework or having earned college credit.
The expansion of virtual AP courses, whereby students remotely engage in AP classes, could open access for high- achieving rural students. However, many critics believe that online learning is not a replacement for traditional face-to-face classroom settings where students can engage more readily and deeply with their instructor and peers. Further, the expansion of virtual AP courses is not likely to address lower rates of success. Overall, a lack of access to rigorous coursework continues to place rural students at a disadvantage compared with their urban and suburban peers.
This brief also finds that suburban and more affluent districts have higher rates of AP success. This is unsurprising, as students in these districts are generally more academically prepared for rigorous coursework. However, the observed disparities by urbanicity are more intriguing. In particular, affluent towns and rural districts have lower rates of success than affluent suburban and urban districts. One possible explanation is that urban and suburban AP students generally take more AP courses and, therefore, have more opportunities to be successful in at least one exam. Alternatively, affluent urban and suburban schools might have better developed AP cultures or more selective requirements for enrolling in AP courses, leading to higher rates of success. Building such a culture requires programs providing teachers with AP-specific professional development, or covering the AP exam costs for students, and this likely requires a critical mass of interested and prepared students. It is also likely that school size continues to affect these findings, because urban and suburban districts are generally larger and more able to support the development of advanced courses. It is important that educators, administrators, and policy makers continue to look for ways to boost success in college-level course- work, perhaps through targeted teacher professional development, financial support for low-income students, and a re-examination of student expectations.
Douglas Gagnon is the co-author of numerous reports on education policy published by the University of New Hampshire Carsey School of Public Policy. Beth Mattingly is director of research on vulnerable families at the Carsey School. The full text of the research report is available here.