Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Why the discrepancies in AP class offerings? July 12, 2011

STATISTICS CERTAINLY DON’T tell the whole story when you’re reading a compilation of numbers. But neither do they lie.

That said, I’d like to direct you to a report by ProPublica, “an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest.”

The topic of ProPublica’s investigation (click here to read), advanced placement class offerings in public schools, certainly interests me. I’ve often wondered why Faribault Senior High School, the school my children attended (and one still does) offers so few advanced placement classes. These college-level classes give students an opportunity to test for college credit upon course completion. That, in my parental opinion, equals academic challenges for students and money saved for those who pass the AP exams and continue on to college.

Faribault High offers four AP classes in physics, English literature and composition, calculus and psychology.

Now, compare that to neighboring Northfield and Owatonna, each about a 15-mile drive away. Northfield Senior High School students can choose from 14 AP classes. In Owatonna, the number is even higher at 20 courses.

The three high schools are similar in size: Faribault, 1,230 students; Owatonna, 1,595; and Northfield, 1,300. They are also located in similar-sized communities. However, anyone who lives in the area knows that Faribault is clearly a blue collar town and Northfield is white collar. I’m not sure about Owatonna, but I would peg it as more blue than white collar.


A link may exist between educational opportunities at a school and local poverty levels, some conclude. I don’t necessarily buy into the whole “we have X number of students getting free and reduced government lunches therefore we are offering fewer AP classes because students won’t take the courses anyway” philosophy. That’s an all-too-easy excuse to explain away the lack of AP classes and/or low student enrollment or interest in those classes.

Rather, I think the number of AP classes has more to do with funding, priorities and how much a school pushes, or doesn’t push, these advanced courses.

So let’s take a look at some of those statistics. ProPublica lets you type in your school and even compare it with neighboring districts. (Note: The database only includes public schools with a student population of more than 3,000 in the 2009 – 2010 school year.)

At Faribault High, 28 percent of students get free/reduced price lunches, compared to only 13 percent in Northfield. In Owatonna, 21 percent of students get those lunches that are targeted for low income households.

The statistics show high school minority populations of 21 percent in Faribault, 15 percent in Owatonna and only 11 percent in Northfield.

So you get the picture: Mostly wealthier white kids attend high school in Northfield. Not so much in Faribault and Owatonna.

Therefore you would conclude, if you adhere to the whole poverty-educational opportunities theory, that Northfield should outshine Faribault and Owatonna in the area of Advanced Placement classes and enrollment.

You would be wrong.

Owatonna shines with 20 AP classes and 29 percent of their students taking at least one AP course.

Northfield isn’t far behind with 26 percent of  students taking at least one of the school’s 14 AP classes.

Faribault doesn’t even come close with just five percent of students enrolled in at least one of the only four Advanced Placement courses offered.


I’ve discussed AP and Post Secondary Enrollment Option classes with several FHS teachers at various times and received answers ranging from an administration that doesn’t make AP or PSEO a priority to staff that prefer not to have class content dictated by AP guidelines. Whether those conclusions are accurate, I don’t know.

But as a parent, I am frustrated. Why shouldn’t any child attending Faribault High have the same educational opportunities afforded students in nearby Owatonna or Northfield?

Faribault also falls below the state-wide average of nine AP classes per high school and 23 percent of Minnesota high school students taking an AP course.

I repeat: Only five percent of FHS students take at least one AP class, of which only four are offered in Faribault.

What’s going on here?

NOTE: Statistics listed on ProPublica come from a nation-wide survey by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

THANKS TO Minnesota Public Radio’s Bob Collins for directing readers to ProPublica’s report in his Friday, July 1, News Cut column.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


8 Responses to “Why the discrepancies in AP class offerings?”

  1. Tammy Says:

    Consider yourself lucky that AP classes are even offered. In South Dakota we do not have AP classes. In 2009 my son took a college English course and I had to pay $250. Yes, that is cheaper than at a college, but in MN, it is free. Maybe they need to find a way to make it more fair so that schools of the same size offer the same classes?? Just a random thought.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I went back online to the ProPublica report and checked out AP classes in South Dakota. I found a list of five S.D. school districts that offer AP classes.

      I don’t know where you live in S.D., but perhaps in a smaller school district?

      Your point is taken that we are fortunate to at least have four AP classes in Faribault when your son had none available at his school.

  2. Kristin Says:

    The courses are not required to take the exams. We only had one AP class that I remember; however, I took three exams and earned a semester’s worth of college credit (and an award for my exam results from the board) before I left high school.

    The question isn’t really whether high schools are teaching to a college exam but whether they’re teaching the materials and thought processes kids need for college, right? You don’t have to be in a labeled AP course to learn.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      You’re right. A class does not need to be labeled as AP for a student to learn. But I still question why the discrepancy among schools in the number of AP offerings.

      I also was unaware, until recently, that enrollment in an AP class is not required to take the exam. I expect, though, that having such a class does increase your odds of passing the exam, although I have no idea how difficult these tests are.

      I don’t feel well informed by my school district about the AP exam process. I have no clue where such exams can be taken if the AP class is not offered at my child’s school.

      • Kristin Says:

        I was fortunate enough to have an advocate in my school district’s gifted and talented program. The school itself definitely did not promote AP classes or exams. (I was one of very few to take them and they were proctored the G&T’s director.) I agree that there’s a problem with the consistency between many school districts, at both ends of the learning spectrum.

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        You were fortunate to have an advocate. I am not aware of a gifted and talented program at Faribault High School.

        As far as AP classes, maybe it’s more common not to push these than to promote them. Opinions or experiences, anyone?

  3. Todd Beach Says:

    You may find this somewhat related article interesting: http://www.relentlessteaching.wordpress.com

    As a teacher of an AP class I can tell you that the rigor of skills and content are incredibly beneficial to students; especially those who plan to continue their education at the post secondary level.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      It’s interesting to get your perspective as an AP teacher on the benefit of such classes. Do you have an opinion on why some school districts offer more AP classes than others? What about teachers–are AP classes something most would rather not teach or ?

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