Research

As Rural Participation in AP Courses Climbs, Average Passing Scores Hold Steady

A new assessment has found that students in rural areas are rapidly catching up on Advanced Placement (AP) testing compared to their urban and suburban peers. A report by the Education Commission of the States and College Board also found that while rural student participation on AP exams has increased over the last 15 years, performance has remained steady.

"Rural" is defined in this case as areas with fewer than 2,500 residents that are not part of more populated communities. According to "Advanced Placement Access and Success: How do rural schools stack up?" nearly 30 percent of public schools in the United States are rural, serving about a fifth of all public school students.

AP access and exam-taking. Green bars show the percentage of high school seniors in all types of urbanicity with access to at least one AP courses; orange bars show participation. Source: Advanced Placement Access and Success: How do rural schools stack up?

AP access and exam-taking. Green bars show the percentage of high school seniors in all types of urbanicity with access to at least one AP courses; orange bars show participation. Source: Advanced Placement Access and Success: How do rural schools stack up?

A data check has found that students graduating from rural high schools don't attend college at the same rate as students in other types of "urbanicity." While 52 percent of suburban students and 49 percent of urban graduates go immediately into a four-year college from high school, for rural-ites, it's only 45 percent. Part of this gap could be explained by the dearth of programs such as AP, International Baccalaureate (IB) and dual and concurrent enrollment, the report noted, all of which are associated with higher college enrollment as well as completion.

As the report explained, students in urban and suburban schools "have nearly universal access to at least one AP course," with school rates near or exceeding 90 percent over the last 15 years. The same is true for "STEM AP," courses focused on science, technology, engineering and math. For rural schools, the share that provide access to these courses has shifted from 56 percent in 2001 to 73 percent in 2015 across all AP courses and from 42 percent to 64 percent for STEM AP courses.

As the report stated, "If this rate of progress continues, rural students will soon have access to AP at the same rate as their urban and suburban peers."

During those same years AP exam participation has nearly doubled across the board for all students. Among rural students, in particular, the number of seniors who took at least one AP test during high school increased from 10 percent in 2000-2001 to 23 percent in 2014-2015.

STEM-oriented AP access and exam-taking. Green bars show the percentage of high school seniors in all types of urbanicity with access to at least one STEM AP courses; orange bars show participation. Source: Advanced Placement Access and Success: How do rural schools stack up?

STEM-oriented AP access and exam-taking. Green bars show the percentage of high school seniors in all types of urbanicity with access to at least one STEM AP courses; orange bars show participation. Source: Advanced Placement Access and Success: How do rural schools stack up?

Even as the numbers have risen, exam performance has stayed about the same. The percentage of rural students who received a passing AP score (at least three on a scale of five) in 2001 was 54 percent; by 2015, it was 53 percent. Yet, the overall achievement rate was lower than urban exam-takers, 58 percent of whom passed, and suburban test-takers, 67 percent of whom passed.

However, once they were in college, rural students with AP pass scores maintained a retention rate nearly equal to that of students from cities or suburbs — between 90 percent and 92 percent across the board.

The report urged state leaders to take specific actions to increase access to AP courses and exams, such as mandating that every high school offer at least one AP course (the law of the land in Arkansas, Indiana and South Carolina).

"We must no longer let economies of scale neglect rural America. All students with the potential to succeed in AP should be able to access those opportunities," said Trevor Packer, head of the AP program, in a prepared statement. "This report shows that many educators are steadily removing barriers to access in rural communities, yet more work can be done. State education leaders can take action to further close the rural AP opportunity gap."

The report is openly available on Education Commission of the States website here.

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