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Fewer than 1 in 4 Oklahoma high schools are on track to meet new state law requiring A.P. courses

A sign that reads "AP Testing Quiet Please" is seen on a desk at Harding Preperatory Charter High School in Oklahoma City.
Whitney Bryen
Oklahoma Watch
A sign that reads "AP Testing Quiet Please" is seen on a desk at Harding Preperatory Charter High School in Oklahoma City.

At Bixby High School, students have at least 19 Advanced Placement courses available, including four physics options, three art classes, and a slate of others.

Those A.P. classes can boost students’ grade-point average above a coveted 4.0 because in some districts, such as Bixby, the classes are worth five or even six points. Students can also earn college credit by scoring well on the final exam.

Bixby, a suburban high school with 2,000 students, is nine miles from Liberty High School in Mounds, with a student count of 152. At Liberty, no A.P. classes are being taught. Principal Trina Evans said the school offers a few, but didn’t have any students sign up.

To meet a new state law requiring a minimum of four A.P. classes, Evans said they’ll try to offer A.P. biology and history in person, and a handful of other courses through an online platform.

“I understand the desire and the wish for our students to have these opportunities, but what’s challenging about it, in a school our size … offering four A.P. classes might not be what our student population needs,” Evans said.

By the 2024-25 school year, all of Oklahoma’s 471 public high schools will be required to offer at least four A.P. courses.

Only a quarter of high schools met that bar last school year, according to an Oklahoma Watch analysis of data from the College Board, which runs A.P.

Half didn’t have any A.P. classes at all.

Schools with the most courses are in urban and suburban schools. Schools with few or no A.P. offerings are more likely to be in rural communities.

Those inequitable opportunities are what Rep. Rhonda Baker, R-Yukon, wanted to address with the law, which she proposed. It passed in 2020, giving school leaders several years to scale up A.P. offerings. Baker, a former A.P. teacher, said she knows rural districts often struggle to hire enough A.P. teachers, but encourages them to use online programs to help fill those gaps.

“Just because you live in a rural community, it should not eliminate you from having access to really great courses, especially if you want to take them,” Baker said.

A.P. was created in the 1950s to provide an academic challenge to a small, elite group of high school students; the program expanded significantly starting in the 2000s to close achievement gaps and improve college readiness. Now, the courses reach more than 2.6 million high school students nationwide.

The courses are more rigorous than a typical high school class and on par with college-level work. But the most crucial difference is the end-of-course exam. Students who score 3 or higher (on a scale of 1 to 5) can receive college credit for the class, depending on the college or university they attend.

To meet the new state requirement, schools can offer A.P. in a traditional classroom setting, partner with a nearby school district or technology center, or offer courses through an online provider.

Horizon, an online learning platform under the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, offered 11 A.P. courses last year, according to College Board data. It added three this year and will continue to expand next year, said Lisa Daniels, director of Horizons. Most are free for Oklahoma schools and include the coursework and teacher.

“It’s a struggle for rural schools to find teachers,” Daniels said. “Or they may only have one student (taking an A.P. class). That’s something we can handle.”

Staffing is the biggest issue at the 275-student Morris High School, which has one A.P. class this year taught by the school’s only A.P. certified teacher, said Superintendent Chris Karch. Sixteen students this year enrolled in the A.P. World History class.

“We don’t have the staff for more,” Karch said.

Morris, 45 miles south of Tulsa in eastern Oklahoma, will use an online platform to meet the minimum next year. Even so, students may need in-person support from a teacher, Karch said.

Some rural school leaders said they offer A.P. courses but students don’t take them. That’s because many prefer concurrent enrollment, where earning college credit doesn’t hinge on a single high-stakes test and instead is based on performance throughout the course.

State funding covers the cost of tuition for high school juniors and seniors taking concurrent classes, up to a certain number of hours, and some districts cover the fees.

“Students here can take college classes for free and know if they pass that class, they’re going to get college credit,” said Doug Tolson, principal of Alex High School, 45 miles south of Oklahoma City.

In Tolson’s 30 years at the district, very few students have chosen to take A.P. classes, he said.

Baker, the state representative, said the most important part is ensuring students in all schools at least have the choice.

“I don’t want the argument to be, ‘Look, our kids are behind, we shouldn’t worry about advanced placement,’” Baker said. “If a child is willing to put the effort in and the work to be able to be successful at something like this, we’ve got to be able to give them the opportunity.”

Oklahoma Watch, at oklahomawatch.org, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers public-policy issues facing the state.

Copyright 2023 KGOU. To see more, visit KGOU.

Oklahoma Watch is a non-profit organization that produces in-depth and investigative journalism on important public-policy issues facing the state. Oklahoma Watch is non-partisan and strives to be balanced, fair, accurate and comprehensive. The reporting project collaborates on occasion with other news outlets. Topics of particular interest include poverty, education, health care, the young and the old, and the disadvantaged.