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Innovations in Education: Connecting Students to Advanced Courses Online
December 2007
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Iowa Online Advanced Placement Academy

Iowa City, Iowa

School Profile: Selected Variables a

Year Initiated 2001
Initiator Belin-Blank Center
Types of Courses Offered APb
Number of Courses Currently Offered 11
Total Enrollments Since Inception 5,616

a These data are reported by the school and are for the school year 2006–07.
b Advanced Placement

In 2000, only a third (141) of Iowa's 426 high schools offered Advanced Placement (AP) courses, with approximately 3,800 of the state's 80,000 11th- and 12th-graders enrolled in the courses.48 Viewing access to AP courses as an equity issue, the Connie Belin & Jacqueline N. Blank International Center for Gifted Education and Talented Development created the Iowa Online Advanced Placement Academy (IOAPA) in 2001, with the intent of making advanced course work accessible to broader numbers of students. While there is still room for progress, as of 2006, more than half of Iowa high schools (227 out of 423) were offering AP courses. Of the approximately 6,600 juniors and seniors enrolled in these courses, many took multiple AP classes. Among them, they took some 9,800 AP exams and achieved a pass rate (i.e., percentage of exams on which students scored a 3 or above, with 5 being the highest) of nearly 70 percent—higher than the national passing rate of just under 60 percent that year.49

In its first year, IOAPA introduced 10 AP courses that were licensed from Apex Learning, a third-party course provider that licenses AP courses nationwide. In 2002, two additional courses were added and taught through the Iowa Communication Network (ICN), a state agency that operates a two-way video system, the original medium for distance learning in Iowa. ICN has continued to be used for teaching AP music theory, while Apex Learning's offerings had expanded from 10 courses to 13 by 2006. After signing on its first cohort of students for the fall of 2001, IOAPA experienced high attrition rates (57 percent) during its first semester. Staff attributed the rates, in part, to students having unreliable access to computers and unpredictable Internet access and, in part, to students not being adequately prepared for the challenging level of AP courses. Those particular problems have largely been resolved, as participating schools have tried to ensure adequate technology for their online students and as an academic culture supportive of AP has slowly evolved at host schools. By 2003, the attrition rate had plummeted to 4 percent. Since then, however, the rate has risen again slightly (to 10 percent), primarily due to (1) students dropping out of online language courses for which they had not been adequately prepared by previous instruction and (2) the addition of new partner schools that have resulted in an increasing number of student enrollments.

All IOAPA classes follow a traditional semester schedule, with a semester running approximately 18 weeks. Four classes (i.e., macroeconomics, microeconomics, psychology, and U.S. government and politics) are one-semester courses offered twice a year, while all other classes are two-semester courses and can only be started in the fall. Any Iowa student can enroll in the Web-based AP exam reviews that IOAPA licenses from Apex Learning.

In addition to offering online AP courses and review sessions through the IOAPA program, the Belin-Blank Center also publishes the Iowa AP Index, which lists the top 50 schools in the state based on the ratio of AP exams taken by students in the school to graduating seniors (see, honors the top 25 schools from the index at an annual ceremony, and continues to train teachers to teach AP classes.

Student Recruitment and Enrollment

To promote IOAPA, its director makes presentations at an annual state conference for giftedand- talented programs and, also, networks with school-based gifted and talented coordinators and district administrators. In addition, IOAPA staff present their program at ICN conferences (where they also collect contact information) and conduct promotional events via the ICN network. In some areas, recruiting students for IOAPA requires demonstrating to school administrators and parents the relative value of an AP course compared to other options.

Students only can enroll in IOAPA classes after their school has registered with IOAPA. The registration process requires school leaders to certify that they can provide adequate technology, a site monitor, and a mentor for students. In addition, schools are required to register with the College Board and agree to administer the AP exams. Schools determine which students may take IOAPA classes, and students must pass the first semester to continue in a yearlong class.

IOAPA recommends that the school offer the online AP classes during the school day because the courses should be considered part of a school's program of studies rather than viewed as an extra, outside-of-school activity. IOAPA believes that by enabling students to pursue these courses during the regular educational day, a school sends the message that it supports this level of curriculum. Students enrolled in the ICN-facilitated classes must be available for synchronous instructor-student time, while students enrolled in IOAPA's online courses can schedule the class at any time during the day. Enrolled students meet with their site mentor at the beginning of the year to check for conflicts (e.g., assignments due while the school is on break) and then work with the course instructor to resolve any problems.

Site coordinators and school counselors help identify students who could benefit from IOAPA's courses. Pretests are available to help guide decisions for several of the mathematics and science classes. While IOAPA recommends using the same withdrawal policies for in-school and online AP classes, schools have the freedom to determine their own online-course-withdrawal policy, which often ends up being the same as their general withdrawal policy. IOAPA online instructors also can recommend to the site coordinator that a student be dropped from the course, something most likely to happen if a student has not actively participated in the course or has failed to complete assignments on time. IOAPA staff also follow student progress and log-ins very closely. The final decision to drop a student is made by the site coordinator after extensive conversation with IOAPA staff. Every school assigns a teacher-of-record to an IOAPA class; this teacher receives a recommended grade from the IOAPA instructor and then assigns the final course grade based on the school's own grading scale.

Course Offerings

When determining which courses to offer, IOAPA evaluates past course enrollment, attrition rates, and exam scores. The social studies classes have proven to be the most popular thus far; at the other end of the spectrum, a combination of high attrition and low enrollment in language classes led IOAPA to drop AP French and AP Spanish. Because the College Board has traditionally required online science classes to have a lab component taught by qualified staff at a bricks-and-mortar school (see Course Materials for Online Learning), IOAPA has been attentive to the availability of highly qualified mentors to monitor lab activities at its partner sites. IOAPA does not currently offer AP biology, for example, because schools have been unable to ensure the availability of highly qualified staff to supervise the labs. However, it does offer AP chemistry and AP physics B, for which schools can ensure that labs are supervised by highly qualified site mentors.

Instruction, Mentoring, and Support

All IOAPA instructors, whether working with Apex Learning or ICN, are state-licensed. Apex Learning trains its teachers in the AP curriculum, as well as in teaching techniques and online learning strategies. School site coordinators distribute required course materials to students. Site mentors meet with all students face-to-face, proctor exams, review student progress, and communicate with parents. For students who are studying online (versus taking a course using ICN's video technology), mentors also ensure that they log on regularly and complete assignments in a timely fashion. Technology requirements for the online courses include reliable broadband Internet access, a personal e-mail account, word processing software, access to a printer and fax machine, and the capacity to download free software, such as Adobe Acrobat.

Although IOAPA currently receives federal grant funding, program staff recognize that continued grant funding is never guaranteed. Thus, they strive to increase the number of schools offering on-site AP classes by encouraging teachers to participate in the week-long Belin-Blank Center's Advanced Placement Teacher Training Institute (APTTI) for teachers interested in developing and teaching AP courses in a standard classroom. IOAPA also provides APTTI "vertical team strategies" to show middle and high school English and social studies teachers how to align their courses to better prepare their students for success in AP and other advanced course work. In the past five years, IOAPA has trained over 500 teachers through these programs. Teachers must apply to attend the institute (for which 50 scholarships are available), with priority given to teachers from schools that offer IOAPA classes and serve disadvantaged students.


A $1.6 million Technology Innovation Challenge grant from the Iowa Department of Education funded the creation and initial operation of IOAPA. Though the grant originally covered one year, it was subsequently expanded to cover a three-year period, 2001–04. In 2002, the U.S. Department of Education's Advanced Placement Incentive Program (API Program) provided funding to the Belin-Blank Center to maintain IOAPA's online AP support for rural schools and students. This funding is being used for course tuition and materials ($380 per student per course), mentor stipends ($200 per teacher per semester), and teacher training.

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Last Modified: 10/05/2009