Innovations in Education: Connecting Students to Advanced Courses Online
December 2007
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The Role—and Dearth—of Advanced Course Work at the Secondary Level

In the face of these rapidly intensifying demands on the global worker, the United States continues to experience disappointingly low rates of high school completion and college preparation. 9 Roughly 30 percent of U.S. students fail to graduate from high school within four years, if at all, 10 with the number approaching 50 percent for African-American, Hispanic, and Native American students. 11 Among those who do receive a high school diploma, some find that while they have fulfilled all their district's graduation requirements, they have not met the entrance requirements for their state university system.

Still others are accepted into higher education but require remedial classes before they can undertake college-level studies. In its report released in September 2006, the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education noted that "among high school graduates who do make it on to postsecondary education, a troubling number waste time—and taxpayer dollars—mastering English and math skills that they should have learned in high school. And some never complete their degrees at all....

"There are also disturbing signs that many students who do earn degrees have not actually mastered the reading, writing, and thinking skills we expect of college graduates. Over the past decade, literacy among college graduates has actually declined.... The consequences of these problems are most severe for students from low-income families and for racial and ethnic minorities." 12

There are no simple solutions to this complex challenge. Indeed, students' education success— including their likelihood of graduating from high school eager and prepared to succeed in college—depends on a wide range of factors, not all of them even related to their schooling. But all other things being equal, it is axiomatic that if students are to be successfully prepared for the demands of higher education and the increasingly competitive work environment, they must have access to the right course work. As students move through secondary school, they must be provided with greater rigor in their core classes, that is, the basic courses needed for graduation. But students also must have access to courses beyond the basic core, courses that push them even harder intellectually, deepening their knowledge and understanding in key content areas and helping them to hone highlevel research and thinking skills. In short, students need access to advanced course work.

What constitutes advanced course work? For its annual report, The Condition of Education, the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES)—the primary federal entity that collects and analyzes education-related data—defines advanced courses according to the "academic pipeline" taxonomy. 13 Based on this classification system, NCES identifies advanced mathematics courses as those with content that is more challenging than algebra I and geometry I and advanced science courses as those with content that is more challenging than general biology. Advanced English courses are those designated as honors, and advanced language courses are those designed for students who have already completed two full years of high school courses in a given language. NCES also considers as advanced any courses authorized by the College Board or the International Baccalaureate (IB) foundation. 14 (For more information about AP and IB programs, see page 10.)

In fact, the percentages of students taking advanced courses have risen over the years. According to NCES, 68 percent of students graduating from high school in 2004 (the last year for which these data are available) had completed advanced course work in science, compared to just 38 percent in 1982. Similar growth occurred in the percentage of graduates who had completed courses in advanced academic mathematics— 50 percent in 2004 compared to 26 percent in 1982. 15 In English, the percentage of students who had taken an advanced course classified as "honors" rose from 13 percent to 33 percent during this period. 16 One challenge, of course, is to raise these percentages across the board. But equally important is to get more students into the kinds of even higher-level advanced courses that will open more doors for them in their subsequent academic pursuits. NCES found that only 18 percent of graduates in 2004 had completed at least one course of either chemistry II, physics II, or advanced biology, and a similarly small percentage (14 percent) had completed a calculus course. 17

Unfortunately, access to advanced classes is neither equal, nor even universal, across the nation's schools. NCES's most recent transcript analysis, which looked at the availability of advanced courses in English, math, science, and foreign languages, found that for more than a quarter of U.S. high school students, there were no advanced courses available at their home school. While 74 percent had access to at least one course, only 58 percent had access to at least two courses, and only 22 percent attended schools that offered four or more advanced courses. NCES data show that students in rural schools and in schools with a 12th-grade enrollment smaller than 150 have the least opportunity to take one or more advanced courses in math, science, English, or a foreign language. 18

Even in schools that offer advanced courses, access can be limited and unequal. One problem is that in many schools advanced courses are "singletons." These are courses that, due to limited enrollment or staffing, have only one section and, therefore, are offered at only one time of day (unlike required courses, such as algebra I, for which multiple sections are likely to be scheduled throughout the school day). Among the students most likely to experience scheduling conflicts are those who want to take multiple advanced courses (e.g., AP Spanish literature and AP chemistry) but find that the courses are scheduled at the same time, or who want to take one or more singleton advanced courses and one or more singleton electives (e.g., studio art III, orchestra, and chorus). The smaller the school, the more likely it is that there will be scheduling conflicts for students interested in advanced courses. In some instances, however, students seeking advanced courses have no scheduling conflicts but are closed out of advanced courses because the courses themselves are oversubscribed and the school does not have the resources to add more sections.

While some schools open such courses to any student who shows a strong interest, other schools require students to meet certain prerequisites before signing up for higher-level course work. For example, students may need to be recommended by one or more teachers, be designated as an honors student, have a certain grade point average, or have a history of success in college preparatory classes. While it is difficult to argue against the reasonableness of wanting students to demonstrate that they have the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in advanced courses, if such access filters are applied too strictly—taken as rigid rules rather than guidelines—they can exclude students who, with the right support, could succeed despite having only an average (or slightly less-than-average) academic record. In this category might be, for example, the student whose learning disabilities cause him to struggle in English language arts but who does well in mathematics, or the late-blooming learner who, interest piqued by a particular subject, is willing to work harder than ever before in order to succeed. Unfortunately, despite a growing recognition that advanced course work is beneficial to a wide range of students, so long as there is a paucity of such courses in U.S. secondary schools and, therefore, a limited number of seats available, only those students considered most qualified are likely to be accepted for the limited number of seats in advanced courses.

As districts and schools seek to increase the numbers of students taking advanced course work, more of them have begun turning to online course delivery as a practical and effective means of expanding access. Based on its survey of the chief administrators from 366 (out of 16,000) school districts nationwide, representing 3,632 schools and 2 million students, the Sloan Consortium estimates that, during the 2005–06 school year, 700,000 K–12 students participated in online learning. More than half of the respondents (57.9 percent) reported having at least one student who had taken an online course in 2005–06, and an additional quarter (24.5 percent) reported expecting at least one student to take an online course within the next three years. The Sloan survey asked about both online courses (defined as those for which all or most of the content is delivered online, with at least 80 percent of seat time replaced by online activity) and blended or hybrid courses (defined as those that use both online and faceto- face delivery with a substantial portion— 30–79 percent—of the content delivered online). Although these percentages relate specifically to online courses, the fact that teachers at bricks-and-mortar schools are incorporating online components into their traditional courses is a significant development, an indication that educators are increasingly seeing online learning as a logical extension of teaching and learning in a traditional classroom. While not all of the districts captured in the Sloan survey are necessarily using or planning to use online courses to deliver advanced content, approximately 68 percent of Sloan respondents rated as "important" using online learning to offer AP or college-level courses, and a little more than half (approximately 55 percent) rated as "important" reducing scheduling conflicts for students. 19

Online learning is fast becoming a part of the norm. The Southern Regional Education Board (SREB), a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that works with leaders and policymakers in 16 member states to improve pre-K through postsecondary education, reports that 12 of its member states already operate a state-sponsored virtual school, and each of its other states is expected to have one within the next couple of years. Once implemented, such schools are likely to ramp up quickly in the face of strong interest. For example, the Georgia Virtual School, created by legislative action just two years ago, already had 4,600 students enrolled in courses as of the 2006–07 school year. Of the 80 courses it offers, 18 are AP. 20

As growing numbers of districts and schools become interested in using online learning to deliver advanced course work, how do they go about translating their interest into on-the-ground success? This guide helps answer that question.

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Last Modified: 10/05/2009