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Tennessee Dept. of Education Planning Virtual AP Courses

In partnership with the nonprofit Niswonger Foundation, the state will provide free online Advanced Placement courses to about 5,000 students. Officials say the program will reduce barriers to AP enrollment.

Online Class
The Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) is developing a new initiative to expand virtual access to Advanced Placement college credit courses not offered in much of the state’s brick-and-mortar high schools, according to a news release last week from the department.

State officials say the program, AP Access for All, will be funded through a $10 million grant to help cover free AP courses for about 5,000 students, with much of the emphasis being placed on encouraging the state’s underserved and rural students to enroll. The program will cover costs such as AP exam fees, textbooks and curriculum resources, as well as requisite aspects of virtual instruction such as learning management systems and Internet connectivity.

“Putting all students on a path to success means thinking creatively, breaking down barriers and putting the best interest of the student at the center of all we do. Students who want to earn college credit through AP coursework shouldn’t be limited by the availability of coursework at the school he or she attends,” Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn said in a department announcement.

AP participation in Tennessee has been growing in recent years, with more than a quarter of the state’s students taking an AP exam in 2020, according to statistics from the higher ed nonprofit College Board. TDOE spokeswoman Victoria Robinson said professional development training for teachers will play a crucial role in continuing to expand AP access and participation throughout the state.

“The program will provide professional development opportunities for Tennessee teachers to become eligible to teach AP courses, as well as provide professional learning experiences for veteran AP teachers who would like to refine and enhance their pedagogy and curriculum knowledge,” Robinson said in an email to Government Technology.

Several other states with higher participation, such as Minnesota and New York, offer similar programs to help expand AP course access, including professional development and exam reimbursements. Robinson said the Tennessee program will be unique in that it covers the gamut of associated costs.

“Tennessee is the first state to offer all students access to virtual AP courses and pay for the necessary curriculum materials and test fees. Several states have programs focused on paying for test fees, but not course access through virtual options,” Robinson said. “The AP Access for All program staff will [also] work directly with districts to identify students impacted by the lack of access to the Internet and will work to ensure students are not restricted from taking AP courses because they don’t have Internet access.”

The department first announced the program in March, encouraging vendors to apply to assist with its development and management. Last week, state officials selected the Tennessee-based education nonprofit Niswonger Foundation to help lead and implement the program.

According to Niswonger President and CEO Nancy Dishner, the nonprofit already had much of the infrastructure and personnel in place to help get the program off the ground. She said the state initiative will largely build upon the Niswonger Online program, established a decade ago to offer over 60 courses ranging from AP to career and technical curriculums. As of this year, she said, Niswonger has trained over 600 AP teachers.

“Around that [online] coursework, we wanted [students] to have that early college experience, and part of that was dual enrollment,” she said. “We were uniquely positioned to apply for that opportunity because we already had a robust capacity for Niswonger Online, and we have a large list of teachers that we can begin to start working with as a catalyst for this program.

“We have a lot of school districts across the state that could not independently do this on their own," she added.

Robinson said the shift to and from virtual learning throughout the COVID-19 pandemic emphasized the importance and need for an initiative such as AP Access for All.

Through the course of more than a year of remote learning, Dishner said, educators have learned the potential for online learning to expand access to a variety of studies, assuming students have reliable Internet connectivity.

“As an educational system across the state, we really saw that we maybe had placed barriers on ourselves that we didn’t need to be placing, that virtual learning can be extremely successful learning and that virtual learning can reach everyone,” she said. “I think we will, as we’re moving forward, continue to use virtual learning as a means to provide more opportunities and richer opportunities to students.”
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.