During my travels on Interstate 70, I have discovered Union Local School District. The district is located near the Ohio-West Virginia border, right at exit 208. Its high school isn’t hard to spot—a boxy two-story building that sits atop a knoll overlooking truck-stop fast food joints and gas stations.

I’ve learned a bit about Union Local and have come to think of it as a quintessential rural district. It enrolls 1,500 or so students, 99 percent of whom are white. A modest portion of its students are impoverished (42 percent). They play football on Fridays, and last I heard on the radio, a local car dealership donates $20 to the football team, if you test-drive their cars. The school district has a nature trail and an American flag etched into its high school lawn, as a reminder of 9/11.

Union Local is one of Ohio’s 231 rural districts that together serve 280,000 or so K-12 students—roughly equal the student population of Nebraska. But besides serving truck-stop communities and partnering with mom-and-pop car dealerships, what is known about rural schools? Specifically, what about the academics of Union Local and Ohio’s rural schools? Do they effectively prepare their kids to attend college? Can their graduates compete academically with their brethren from Ohio’s (often, high-powered) suburban districts? Is it likely that their graduates will eventually attain jobs in an increasingly competitive labor market?

If we start and finish with the state’s academic rating system, we find that nearly all rural districts perform quite well, thank you. Of the 231 districts that the Ohio Department of Education officially defines as “rural,” 96 percent received a rating equivalent to a “B” or higher in 2011-12. So, according to the State of Ohio, rural districts are humming right along.

The state rating system, however, is only the tip of the academic iceberg. To fully appreciate the academics of rural schools, let’s dig into three data points that were not components of the state’s rating system: ACT test participation (Ohio’s primary college admissions exam), Advanced Placement (AP) test participation, and college remediation rates. Each of these indicators could provide further insight into whether rural districts are helping their students get into college, and if they do get in, to excel in their college coursework, right from the get-go.

ACT Test Taking

Chart 1: Rural districts have relatively low ACT participation – Rural districts, by percentage of graduates taking ACT exam, 2010-11

SOURCE: Ohio Department of Education, 2011-12 “District Rating Data”; Ohio Department of Education, 2013 “Typology of Ohio DistrictsNOTE: Each blue bar represents a rural district’s ACT participation rate. Non-rural districts are all districts not defined by the Ohio Department of Education as “rural” (“suburban,” “small town,” and “urban”).

Chart 1 shows that many rural districts have ACT participation rates lower than their non-rural counterparts. Of Ohio’s 231 rural districts, 176 have ACT participation rates that fall beneath the average participation rate among non-rural districts (66 percent, marked by the red line on the chart). Many rural districts have less than 50 percent of their graduates taking the ACT, and a few have less than 40 percent participation. Taken together, rural school districts on average have a lower ACT participation rate than non-rural districts: 59 percent to 66 percent. Yet, despite their lower participation rates, there is a silver lining for rural schools: rural students who do take the ACT score on par with their non-rural peers (both groups have average composite scores of 21).

Advanced Placement (AP) Test Taking

Chart 2: Rural districts have a low number of AP test takers – Distribution of rural districts, by the number of graduates who take at least one AP exam, 2010-11

SOURCE: Ohio Department of Education, 2011-12 “District Rating Data”; Ohio Department of Education, 2013 “Typology of Ohio Districts

Rural districts have low Advanced Placement (AP) test participation. Greater participation in AP could indicate that more students are ready for college coursework. Chart 2 shows the number of graduates who took at least one AP exam, within Ohio’s rural school districts. It’s striking to see that 103 rural school districts report that zero graduates had taken an AP exam. Another 46 districts report less than 10 of their graduating students took an AP exam. The numbers are very low, but it’s important to keep the numbers in perspective, as rural districts may graduate anywhere from approximately 20 to 200 students per year. (The education department doesn’t report AP test participation as a percentage of graduates.) Still, with nearly two-thirds of rural districts reporting less than 10 AP test participants—149 out of 231 districts—the data indicate that AP has not yet become a normal part of a rural student’s high school experience.

College Remediation Rates

Chart 3: Rural districts remediation rates are high but in-line with the rest of the state – Rural districts by the percentage of graduates requiring remedial coursework as college freshman, fall 2011

SOURCE: Ohio Board of Regents, December 2012 “High School to College Transition Reports”; Ohio Department of Education, 2013 “Typology of Ohio DistrictsNOTE: Each blue bar represents a rural district’s remediation rate. Non-rural districts are all districts not defined by the Ohio Department of Education as “rural” (“suburban,” “small town,” and “urban”)

Rural school districts’ remediation rates generally parallel their non-rural counterparts. The remediation rate is the percentage of high school graduates that enter an Ohio public college requiring remedial (non-credit) coursework in either English or math. On average, Ohio’s rural districts have a 45 percent remediation rate, meaning that nearly half of their college-bound graduates require remedial college coursework. This is a remarkably high percentage, but is only just above that of non-rural school districts (43 percent, shown as a red line in chart 3). The chart above also displays the variation in remediation rates among rural districts: Rural schools have remediation rates from 11 percent (best) to 85 percent (worst). The data, then, suggest that rural, college-bound students tend to enter college not fully prepared, but on average are only slightly worse off than their non-rural counterparts.

The data—and the case for why rural Ohioans should support the Common Core

Nearly all rural districts—96 percent—earn a high rating from the state. Yet, the ACT participation, AP participation, and remediation rate data all suggest that rural districts can do more to prepare their students for life after high school. The Common Core standards in English and math seek to improve the alignment between K-12 schools and college by raising the academic standards of K-12 education, so that young people can jump right into college work.

The Common Core, however, is under attack, and conservatives have been the loudest critics. In Ohio, for example, state representative Andy Thompson (R) from the rural 95th district recently introduced House Bill 267, which would repeal the Common Core. The criticism of the Common Core is in part an outgrowth of concerns about the federal government’s overreach into education. Critics worry that implementing the Common Core could remove what makes each school unique in its own right.

Indeed, there’s much to preserve about rural America and its schools: Football on Friday nights, local businesses that support their school’s programs, and classes where everyone’s name is known.

But let’s also be honest: There’s also much work to be done in rural America and in its schools. As the data suggest, rural school districts across Ohio—including Union Local (61 percent ACT participation/less than 10 AP test takers/65 percent remediation rate)—can and must do more for their students.

The Common Core can help. The Common Core can help motivate and prepare more rural students to take—and succeed—on their ACTs. At an earlier age, it can put more rural students on track to take advantage of AP classes and the exams that follow as high-school students. And, it can ensure that all rural students go to college armed and ready to tackle real—not remedial—college coursework.

To be sure, the Common Core isn’t a cure-all for rural schools any more than any school—the Common Core, for example, doesn’t resolve thorny issues unique to rural schools, such as technological capacity, or issues related to scale, especially when it comes to providing AP courses.

Even so, the Common Core, if embraced and implemented well, can give rural students a fighter’s chance at earning a slot in a competitive university or a well-paying job in the labor force. And, it doesn’t imperil the uniqueness of rural life or its educational institutions. (Under Ohio state law, ORC. 3313.60, local school boards will remain in control of curriculum decisions.) The Common Core can strengthen the link between their K-12 education and college, which as the data indicate is far too weak. For these reasons, rural, conservative citizens and lawmakers should support not stymie the Common Core.

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