IT Infrastructure

Students Opting for AP Courses Online

By Rhea R. Borja — March 30, 2007 8 min read
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Poised at the intersection of two converging trends—the boom in virtual education and a dramatic rise in enrollment in Advanced Placement courses—online AP courses are experiencing a surge in popularity.

While no firm national statistics exist, school-by-school information suggests strong growth in online AP enrollment in recent years, as high school students’ quest to get into top colleges has grown increasingly competitive.

Providers have also proliferated, at a time when schools seek to offer more AP courses and serve all the students who are interested in them. Now, many state virtual schools and some school districts offer online AP courses, along with universities, companies, and nonprofit groups.

And while achievement information on students who take online AP courses is scant, data provided by selected virtual schools and companies appear to show a slight edge for students who take the courses online instead of in brick-and-mortar high schools.

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“AP is the currency of college availability, so the more courses the students can take, the more chances they have to get into the college they want,” said Curt Anderson, the director of strategic partnerships for University of California College Prep Online, a statewide virtual-learning initiative based in Santa Cruz.

Enrollments in online AP courses offered by Apex Learning, a Seattle-based online-learning company, skyrocketed from 8,400 in the 2003-04 school year to 30,200 in 2006-07, the company reports. At UC College Prep, AP course enrollments soared from 797 in 2005-06 to 1,872 this school year.

Likewise, the Orlando, Fla.-based Florida Virtual School has increased its AP course offerings from one in 1997 to 11 today, and in-state AP course enrollments this year are expected to hit almost 1,500, nearly double the level in 2004.

And in Virginia, AP course enrollments quadrupled at the state’s virtual school from 500 two years ago to roughly 2,000 this year. That surprised Cathy Cheely, the e-learning coordinator for Richmond-based Virtual Virginia.

“It kind of knocked us off our feet, quite frankly,” she said. “We didn’t plan for that.”

Expanding Options

A decade ago, providers of online Advanced Placement courses were few. Apex Learning pretty much had the field to itself, online-learning experts say. But in the past five years or so, the supply side of the online-AP market has grown considerably.

“Ten years ago, there were very few providers offering full online AP courses,” said Susan Patrick, the president and chief executive officer of the National Association of Online Learning, a Vienna, Va.-based nonprofit membership group of Web-based K-12 education providers and educators. “Today, there are many options to choose from.”

That trend is helping level the playing field for rural, homebound, low-income, and other students who may not have access to many AP classes at their schools, Ms. Patrick said. About 33 percent of high schools nationwide did not offer AP classes in the 2002-03 school year, according to a 2005 report by the National Center for Education Statistics.

National information on the number and type of online Advanced Placement providers is hard to find. So, too, are data on how students fare on the end-of-course AP exams that may qualify them for college credit if their scores are high enough.

Little national information exists on precollegiate online learning in general, much less on online AP courses, noted a recent report on K-12 online learning by the Sloan Consortium, a Needham, Mass.-based group of online-education-related organizations.

While an estimated 45,300 students enrolled in AP or college-level courses through distance education in 2002-03, according to a 2005 NCES report, “distance education” technologies include interactive video and prerecorded video, not just Web-based instruction.

The College Board, the New York City-based nonprofit group that sponsors the Advanced Placement program, and which is in the midst of a nationwide audit of AP courses, does not track enrollment in online-AP courses. The College Board notes, though, that of the 1.3 million students who took an AP exam in 2006, 1.1 percent, or 14,724 students, said they took an AP course or an AP-exam review program online.

Growing Acceptance

One reason for the increase in online AP enrollment, some experts say, is that school districts and parents have become more receptive to online courses in general.

Past misconceptions about online learning included the notion that teachers were inaccessible and that the courses were static and boring, said Mr. Anderson of UC College Prep Online.

“Like a lot of things in education, it takes a while for things to catch on,” he said. “But schools are beginning to see how [online courses] can fit in with what they’re doing. They use us to fill in the gaps.”

Online AP courses now are also more interactive and media-rich than those in years past, Ms. Patrick said. And some, such as those at UC College Prep Online, which is run by the University of California system, can be downloaded onto MP3 digital-music players such as iPods.

“Today, there are many options to choose from,” Ms. Patrick said. “I don’t see a slowing down anytime soon.”

Liz Pape

Students—and their parents—seem to feel more pressure, meanwhile, than in years past to bolster academic résumés and thus the chances for acceptance by the students’ colleges of choice, say other online-learning experts such as Liz Pape. She’s the president and chief executive officer of the Maynard, Mass.-based Virtual High School, a nonprofit organization that provides AP and other academic courses online in 28 states and 23 countries.

“Online AP is filling a demand that schools are not able to fill,” Ms. Pape said.

The VHS began offering AP courses after educators increasingly called for them. And it wasn’t just those in small, rural schools, according to Ms. Pape.

“The small schools said, ‘We don’t have enough AP courses,’ and the big schools said, ‘Even if we have enough AP courses, all the students won’t be able to take them,’ ” because of class-scheduling conflicts, she said.

Since 2000-01, the VHS has increased its AP courses from three to 12. Enrollment jumped from 43 students in 2001 to almost 500 in the 2005-06 school year. Some courses are so popular that they have waiting lists.

‘More Attention’

The reasons students take online AP courses vary. Ericka M. Novoa, an 11th grader at Columbia High School in Lake City, Fla., is taking an AP English course from the Florida Virtual School, or FLVS, because the only time her school offered that course was at 7:15 a.m., she said.

“I’m not an early-morning person,” Ms. Novoa said.

Jeremy Smyth of P.K. Yonge High School in Gainesville, Fla., is taking AP macroeconomics this semester through the FLVS. At first he was skeptical of the quality of the online course. But Mr. Smyth, a senior, said he learned more the first week than in any other course he had taken at school. He now plans to major in economics at the University of Florida, which he will attend next fall.

Mr. Smyth said one reason he likes the virtual course is that he gets more attention and interaction from his online teacher than from teachers at his regular school. “You have a more personal relationship with your teacher online, which is kind of strange, but you can actually talk to them,” he said.

The FLVS, like many other virtual schools, requires its teachers to have monthly phone contact with their students, although most teachers communicate more frequently, according to Pam Birtolo, its chief learning officer. Other virtual schools, such as Virginia Virtual, also give their teachers Web-accessible personal digital assistants, such as Treos, so students can contact them anytime.

No one seems to be tracking how many of the students who have taken online Advanced Placement courses actually take the corresponding AP exams and how they perform when they do.

But limited data available from individual providers, including the Virtual High School, the Florida Virtual School, and Apex Learning, suggest students who take online AP courses may have an edge on the tests compared with those who take the courses in brick-and-mortar schools.

As a caveat, some experts and studies point out that students who take online courses tend to be more motivated than their peers who take traditional courses.

AP exams are scored on a 1-to-5 scale, with 5 demonstrating mastery of the course. Many colleges award credit to those with AP exam scores of 4 and above, and some accept those with 3’s.

The Virtual High School reported that in 2005-06, its students received an average score of 3.5 on the AP environmental-science exam, for example, compared with a national average of 2.59.

On the AP English language and composition exam, the average VHS score was 3.4, compared with a national average of 2.89. About 70 percent of students who took an AP course from the Virtual High School in 2005-06 also took the corresponding exam, according to VHS officials.

Apex Learning reports that its students performed slightly better than the national average in 2003, the only year for which it made its students’ exam results available. That year, 61.5 percent of students who took Apex Learning’s online AP courses and a program to review for the exam scored a 3 or higher, the company says. The national average of students scoring 3 or higher was 60.4 percent, according to the College Board.

Ms. Birtolo of the FLVS said the increasing popularity of online AP courses attests to their effectiveness: “Whether it’s a Big Mac or an AP computer-science course, once word of mouth begins, you see rocketing growth.”

Coverage of new schooling arrangements and classroom improvement efforts is supported by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the April 04, 2007 edition of Education Week as Students Opting for AP Courses Online


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