Online courses help boost AP results

More students are taking–and passing–Advanced Placement (AP) exams in every part of the country, as college-level work in high school becomes increasingly common, the College Board reported Jan. 25. Many state education officials attribute the gains in participation at least in part to online courses that expand the reach of advanced-level instruction.

In every state and the District of Columbia, the percentage of public school students who took–and who passed–at least one AP test was up in 2004, compared with the graduating class of 2000.

Passing-rate gains ranged from just six-tenths of a percentage point by Louisiana and Mississippi to 5.7 percentage points by Florida, reported the College Board, the nonprofit organization that runs the AP program.

Significant gaps remain, however, even as AP participation booms nationwide, according to the first state-by-state report in the 50-year history of the college-level testing program.

Many students enter college without having passed an AP test, the College Board reported; and black students have low test participation and scores that average a full level behind those of whites.

The Bush administrations in Washington and Florida, which have been pushing to increase high school rigor, embraced the positive news, which followed other reports that have underscored how unprepared many high school graduates are for college or work.

“Florida has developed a strong and unique partnership with the College Board that has expanded college preparatory course work to more minorities and under represented youth,” Gov. Jeb Bush, the president’s brother, said in Tallahassee, Fla.

College Board President Caston Caperton cited Florida’s progress, saying it “presents a national model.”

The AP program, which began as an experiment for elite students seeking college courses and credit, has now become a fixture in more than 14,000 U.S. public schools. Beyond gaining experience, a student gains an edge; college admission officers say they place more importance on grades in college-prep courses such as AP than they do on any other factor.

Across the country, 20.9 percent of the public school class of 2004–one in five students–took at least one AP exam, compared with 15.9 percent four years earlier. More significantly, 13.2 percent mastered an AP exam last year, up from 10.2 percent in 2000.

Research shows that success on AP exams is a strong predictor of success in college.

“This new report provides further proof that our children respond when we challenge them academically,” said U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who began her term last week. Spellings said she was especially happy to see more minorities taking AP courses. That has been a long-standing challenge for the College Board.

Hispanics made up 13.1 percent of AP test-takers last year, up from 10.9 percent. Their participation slightly exceeds their share of the public school population. AP Spanish appears to be influencing those numbers, because 53 percent of its participants are Hispanic.

Black students remain underrepresented in the AP program. They account for 13.2 percent of the students but only 6 percent of AP test-takers, up from 5.3 percent four years ago.

About two in three AP test-takers are white.

To avoid inflating state performance, the College Board counted students once regardless of how many AP subject tests they passed. But that obscures the point that students in wealthy areas often have access to multiple AP courses while other students do not, said Bob Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest, which monitors standardized testing.

“Unfortunately, despite the value of AP courses, they end up reinforcing huge gaps between haves and have-nots because of differences in where courses are offered,” he said.

Online instruction is quickly changing that, however–especially in rural areas.

Michelle Mehlberg, head of South Dakota’s office of curriculum, technology, and assessment, said the advent of virtual learning has greatly increased student participation in AP courses across South Dakota, especially in remote districts, where access to these and other opportunities is traditionally lower than in more urban or affluent areas.

This year, Mehlberg said, at least 86 of the state’s students are enrolled in an online AP course from Seattle-based APEX Learning. She said South Dakota boasts a 95-percent pass rate for its students enrolled in AP courses–including those who take classes via the internet.

Mary Haas, AP mentor for the 1,000-student Del Rapids Public School District in rural South Dakota, said online courses offer “a great opportunity” for students in rural districts, noting that kids are leaving high school feeling better equipped to succeed at the next level.

Before online AP courses, Haas said, districts like Del Rapids “were pretty much limited to what they had on staff.” While the school system boasts a corps of intensely committed educators at every level, she said, no one is an expert on every subject.

Deborah Hinckley, public affairs director for the Wyoming Department of Education–yet another system that relies heavily on the internet to help bridge the rural divide–said the online AP courses and other opportunities available through the state’s high-speed data and video network have opened the door for children to learn and succeed in ways she never would have thought possible.

To date, she said, there remain only approximately eight districts throughout the state that offer no form of online learning for students. Aside from the dozens of AP courses available on the network, she said, the state also offers foreign-language instruction and other difficult-to-staff subjects.

On a 5-point scale, the typical AP test score is 2 for black students, between 2.5 and 2.8 for Hispanic students, and 3 for white students, the College Board reported.

New York is the first state to have more than 20 percent of its graduating class achieve a grade of 3 or higher on the exam, the level considered to be mastery. New York’s challenging standards and state testing have encouraged AP enrollment, state officials said.

Other states were close to New York; Maryland, Utah, Florida, California, and Massachusetts, with anywhere from 18 to 20 percent of students earning the passing score.

Besides Florida, the states with the greatest increases in successful AP scores were Maryland, North Carolina, Colorado, Connecticut, and Washington.


Advanced Placement program

Interactive map of AP results by state


District uses grant money to address tech training needs

The Parkersburg News and Sentinel in Parkersburg, W.Va., reports that Wood County Schools has used an Enhancing Education Through Technology grant from the U.S. Department of Education to train technology integration specialists. These specialists are working with the district’s teachers and students to enhance the learning experience.


New Hampshire high school coping with rash of cyber-bullying

The Telegraph of Nashua, N.H., reports on a cyber-bullying problem at Merrimack High School. Students are allowed to carry cell phones for emergency purposes, but this privilege is often abused. “Instant messages and e-mail are being employed as primary tools for bullying and harassment,” said Bill Preble, a New England College professor who has studied the cyber-bullying phenomenon.


“High Tech U” camp alumni get a glimpse of nanotechnology

The Mercury-News of San Jose, Calif., reports on a reunion of 24 local high school and college students who participated in a camp called “High Tech U.” The camp, begun in 2002, was designed to encourage youngsters from low-income neighborhoods to pursue careers in technology. At this particular reunion, students participated in a demonstration of nanotechnology. (Note: This site requires registration.)


Spellings spurns PBS show with gay characters

The nation’s new education secretary has denounced the Public Broadcasting Service for spending public money on a cartoon with lesbian characters, saying many parents would not want children exposed to such lifestyles.

The not-yet-aired episode of “Postcards From Buster” shows the title character–an animated bunny named Buster, one of the characters from the popular “Arthur” series of children’s books written by Marc Brown–on a trip to Vermont, a state known for recognizing same-sex civil unions. The episode features two lesbian couples, although the focus is on farm life and maple sugaring.

A PBS spokesman said Jan. 25 that the nonprofit network has decided not to distribute the episode, called “Sugartime!,” to its 349 stations. She said the Education Department’s objections were not a factor in that decision.

“Ultimately, our decision was based on the fact that we recognize this is a sensitive issue, and we wanted to make sure that parents had an opportunity to introduce this subject to their children in their own time,” said Lea Sloan, vice president of media relations at PBS.

However, the Boston public television station that produces the show, WGBH, does plan to make the “Sugartime!” episode available to other stations. WGBH also plans to air the episode on March 23, Sloan said.

PBS gets money for the “Postcards from Buster” series through the federal Ready-To-Learn program, one aimed at helping young children learn through television.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said the “Sugartime!” episode does not fulfill the intent Congress had in mind for programming. By law, she said, any funded shows must give top attention to “research-based educational objectives, content, and materials.”

“Many parents would not want their young children exposed to the lifestyles portrayed in the episode,” Spellings wrote in a letter sent Jan. 25 to Pat Mitchell, president and chief executive officer of PBS.

“Congress’s and the Department’s purpose in funding this programming certainly was not to introduce this kind of subject matter to children, particularly through the powerful and intimate medium of television.”

She asked PBS to consider refunding the money it spent on the episode.

With her letter, Spellings has made criticism of the publicly funded program’s depiction of the gay lifestyle one of her first acts as secretary. She began on Jan. 24, replacing Rod Paige as President Bush’s education chief.

Spellings issued three requests to PBS.

She asked that her department’s seal or any statement linking the department to the show be removed. She asked PBS to notify its member stations of the nature of show so they could review it before airing it. And she asked for the refund “in the interest of avoiding embroiling the Ready-To-Learn program in a controversy that will only hurt” it.

In closing, she warned: “You can be assured that in the future the department will be more clear as to its expectations for any future programming that it funds.”

The department has awarded nearly $100 million to PBS through the Ready-To-Learn program over the last five years in a contract that expires in September, said department spokeswoman Susan Aspey. That money went to the production of “Postcards From Buster” and other children’s shows, and to promotion of those shows in local communities, she said.

The show about Buster also gets funding from other sources.

In the show, Buster carries a digital video camera and explores regions, activities, and people of different backgrounds and religions.


Postcards from Buster

Education Department


FETC 2005 opens in Orlando

The 25th edition of the Florida Educational Technology Conference (FETC) began last night with a strong message to attendees: Technology is only as effective as the training educators receive with it.

One of the largest ed-tech conferences in the nation, FETC–which runs through Jan. 28–is expected to attract thousands of teachers, technology coordinators and integration specialists, curriculum directors, media specialists, and other K-12 technology leaders to sunny Orlando for 70 workshops, more than 200 concurrent sessions, an Assistive and Instructional Technology Lab, and an exhibit hall featuring more than 500 ed-tech companies.

This year, the conference has placed a special emphasis on helping attendees meet state and national standards. FETC has included the Sunshine State Standards and/or the International Society for Technology in Education’s National Educational Technology Standards (NETS) for every session and workshop offered during the conference. By including standards with session and workshop information, this year’s FETC will help attendees identify the sessions and workshops that best fit their professional development needs, conference organizers said.

In the opening general session, Susan Patrick, director of educational technology for the U.S. Department of Education, quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson in telling attendees: “Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”

This quote is particularly apt for FETC, Patrick added, because Florida for years has been a pioneer in the use of technology to enhance instruction.

Patrick urged the audience to think differently about the use of technology in the nation’s schools. “We use the term ‘integrate’–but what are we integrating into?” she asked. Instead of automating old methods of instruction, she advocated the use of technology to transform instructional practices. If educators do that, she concluded, “We may together usher in a new Golden Age of education.”

Jim Warford, chancellor of K-12 education for the Florida Department of Education, followed Patrick by noting some of the success of the state’s students. He said Florida fourth graders are improving in reading faster than in most other areas of the country–and the state’s Advanced Placement students have outperformed all other students in the nation and even the world: One-third of the highest performing schools in the world on the College Board’s AP exams are in Florida, he claimed.

“It is not a coincidence that Florida is also leading the nation in technology integration,” Warford said.

Visit this site throughout the conference for more updates, including reports from each of the 200 concurrent sessions by our eSchool News Conference Correspondents–educators who have volunteered their time to report on what they’ve seen, heard, and learned.


Survey: Users confuse search results, ads

Only 1 in 6 users of internet search engines can tell the difference between unbiased search results and paid advertisements, a new survey finds. Though it polled only adults, the survey’s results underscore the need for educators to teach their students how to understand and evaluate carefully the information they find online–particularly as today’s generation of students increasingly turn to the web as their primary research tool.

The Pew Internet and American Life Project reported on Jan. 23 that internet users in the United States are generally naive when it comes to how search engines work.

The major search engines all return a mix of regular results, based solely on relevance to the search terms entered, and sponsored links, for which a web site has paid money to get displayed more prominently.

Google Inc. marks such ads as “sponsored links,” Yahoo Inc. terms them “sponsor results,” and Microsoft Corp.’s MSN uses “sponsored sites.” Such ads are placed to the right and on top of the regular search results, in some cases highlighted in a different color.

But only 38 percent of web searchers even know of the distinction, according to the Pew survey, and of those, not even half–47 percent–say they can always tell which are paid. That comes out to only 18 percent of all web searchers knowing when a link is paid.

Forty-five percent of web searchers say they would stop using search engines if they thought they weren’t being clear about such payments, yet 92 percent of web searchers say they are confident about their searching abilities.

Deborah Fallows, a senior research fellow at Pew and the study’s author, said the findings were surprising given that the same people are likely to know the difference between television programs and infomercials.

“We’re still in the infancy of the internet,” Fallows said. “People are still kind of so pleased that they can go there, ask for something, and get an answer that it’s kind of not on their radar screen to look in a very scrutinizing way to see what’s in the background there.”

She said the results reflect blind trust on the part of the web searcher rather than “anything nefarious on the part of the search engine.”

Nonetheless, the Consumer Reports WebWatch studied the top 15 search engines and found many of them could do better in disclosing sponsorships, particularly when they practice “paid inclusion.” That is when sites pay to make sure they are included in a search engine’s index, though without guarantees that their links will be displayed more prominently.

The telephone-based Pew study was conducted May 14 through June 17 and involved 2,200 adults, including 1,399 internet users. Results based on internet users have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

The survey results are a reminder that search engines have become an accepted first step in finding information for all age groups, without enough attention paid to deciphering the particular “forms and features” of each search engine, said Nancy Messmer, director of library media technology for the Bellingham, Wash., school system.

“Information literacy is a key focus of instruction for library media specialists in our schools,” Messmer said. “A major part of this is understanding the forms and features of information available online. This starts out for students as scanning the screen to understand how information is represented, knowing what the graphics and symbols stand for, and figuring out the difference between any advertisements and the main information.”

She continued: “When students use search engines on the open internet, a key first question is, ‘Who wrote this information, and is it credible?’ Whenever possible, we lead students to purchased databases of information, but we also teach them critical questions to ask when searching the open internet.”


Pew Internet and American Life Project

Consumer Reports WebWatch


Renaissance Learning, AlphaSmart to merge

Renaissance Learning Inc., a Wisconsin-based provider of educational software, yesterday announced plans to merge with AlphaSmart Inc., a maker of portable word processors for students. The $57 million marriage is just the latest in a swath of industry moves intended to advance the trend toward one-to-one computing in the nation’s schools.

Under the agreement, unanimously approved by the boards of directors of both companies, Renaissance will continue to provide AlphaSmart products to the more than 8,000 school districts already using the tools nationwide. The company also said it would begin looking at ways to package its suite of educational software solutions with the popular handheld devices, giving students in more than 67,000 schools the chance to access custom educational content in the palms of their hands.

“The addition of AlphaSmart’s exceptional product line and talented professional staff will strengthen and diversify Renaissance Learning’s position as a leading provider of learning information systems to schools,” said John Hickey, president and chief executive officer of Renaissance Learning. “Together, we will be able to provide unique breakthrough solutions to help educators develop student writing skills along with strengthening other Renaissance solutions, where limited computer access is a bottleneck to daily program use.”

Company executives said the merger would have no immediate impact on the products and services offered by the two companies and that existing leadership teams would remain intact. In the future, Hickey said, Renaissance will offer drill and practice programs for its latest writing intervention tool, as well as for its popular Accelerated Reader product, by way of select AlphaSmart devices.

Hickey said the ability to download the programs to a portable computer companion such as AlphaSmart’s Dana or Neo would help schools overcome many of the inequities that result from a lack of classroom computers.

Though educators would love to be able to provide a desktop or laptop computer for every student, he said, the reality is that most schools can’t afford that type of investment. With AlphaSmart, he explained, educators soon will be able to download information from their PCs or laptops directly to the portable devices, giving each student in the classroom unfettered access to the latest interventions. But customers, he said, aren’t likely to see these and other innovations until later in the 2005-06 school year.

Renaissance isn’t the first educational service provider to make overtures toward the handheld computing market. As educators begin to see the value of one-to-one computing in the nation’s classrooms, inking multimillion-dollar laptop initiatives and expanding the use of handheld devices such as the Palm and PocketPC, several ed-tech companies have formed similar alliances combining the ubiquity of handhelds with an overarching need for more individualized instruction and assessment.

In June, Roseville, Calif.-based PASCO Scientific Inc., a provider of instructional and lab materials for science classes, acquired ImagiWorks Inc., which specializes in science and math programs for the Palm operating system.

PASCO executives said the merger was fueled by industry expectations that the number of handhelds in education would grow exponentially in the next two years.

At the time of that merger, market research firm IDC said K-12 public schools would spend approximately $175 million on handhelds in the current school year and nearly $300 million by the 2005-06 school year.

Other educational companies, including Scantron Corp., the testing and assessment giant known for its bubble-style scoring sheets, also have sought out partnerships with makers of handheld educational software products and services.

Still other companies branching out into the handheld marketplace include textbook maker McGraw-Hill and Franklin Electronic Publisher Inc., long known for its line of handheld video and travel games.

Introduced in 1992 by a group of former Apple Computer engineers, AlphaSmart products, including the Dana and ultra-portable Neo, are intended to enhance students’ mastery of critical skills from writing and keyboarding to basic comprehension.

Renaissance Learning is perhaps best-known as the maker of Accelerated Reader, the reading software program reportedly used in more than 55,000 schools. Among the company’s various other offerings are solutions intended to boost math and writing instruction, as well as student assessment and teacher-parent communication.

More recently, the firm introduced Renaissance Place, an integrated, web-based student information system designed to track student performance in relation to Adequate Yearly Progress as required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

A longtime provider of research-based learning systems, school improvement programs, teacher training, and consulting services, Renaissance contends it has sought to empower educators with the kind of continuous feedback that helps motivate students by accelerating learning, boosting test scores, and coordinating learning with state standards.

“By offering AlphaSmart portable computer-companion products with Renaissance Learning software, we will be able to help K-12 districts leverage the use of their existing classroom computers, thereby increasing the value derived from their technology investment,” said Ketan D. Kothari, chairman and chief executive officer of AlphaSmart. “Our solutions are highly complementary, and we expect that this merger will help grow the revenues of the combined companies and accelerate learning of writing and other subjects.”

Hickey estimates the merger will save the combined entity at least $1 million, thanks to a reduction in costs and redundancy attributed to the consolidation.

Structured as a tax-free reorganization, the deal, which is expected to be completed in the second quarter of 2005, will pay every AlphaSmart stockholder $3.75 per share. Stockholders will have the option to be paid in cash, stock, or a combination of the two.

The final agreement, subject to approval by AlphaSmart shareholders, also awaits official go-ahead from the federal government.

At press time, AlphaSmart stock, which trades on the NASDAQ, was up nearly 7 cents to $3.62 a share.


AlphaSmart Inc.

PASCO Scientific

Renaissance Learning Inc.

Scantron Corp.


Maine district plans on using laptops for its high-stakes testing

The Bangor Daily News of Bangor, Maine, reports that the local school district in Holden invited seventh- and eighth-graders to a school board meeting to show off presentations they produced on their laptops. The district also announced that it has decided to conduct its state testing of these students on the laptops.


William and Mary freshmen must buy laptops starting in ’06

WTOP Radio in Washington reports that The College of William and Mary has decided to require freshmen to purchase laptops from the school, beginning in 2006. The school’s IT staff wants students to have one standard computer. The college is calling the program MyNotebook.