Advanced placement courses and exams are crucial tools for the nation's top high school students -- opening doors to the best courses at the best colleges and measuring how good a job school districts do in making opportunities available to their most outstanding youngsters.
In Baltimore, the number of high school students taking advanced placement exams is, by any measure, minuscule.
City students took 79 AP exams last year. Because some students took more than one exam, that means that actually fewer than 79 youngsters took a try at gaining advanced college placement in subjects ranging from English to history to chemistry to calculus to any of several foreign languages.
At 12 of the city's 17 mainstream high schools, no students took any AP exams.
Yet in Washington, an urban school system facing problems easily the equal of Baltimore's, 618 students took AP exams, out of a slightly smaller enrollment. Students at all but two of the capital's 16 high schools were represented in that number.
In Baltimore County, in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Rochester, N.Y., and Mercer County, W.Va., students took, proportionately, five to 25 times as many AP exams as did Baltimore students.
These figures were put together in a report by the Abell Foundation that has just been issued -- but that has already galvanized the city school system into action.
A committee of school principals has been formed to find ways to increase student participation, and the executive director of the AP program -- which is administered by the College Board -- is coming to Baltimore later this month to offer advice, according to Gary Thrift, the city's director of senior high schools.
The report, said Mr. Thrift, who was presented with a copy before its release, "has served as a catalyst for us."
Generally, students prepare for the AP exams by taking special advanced placement courses. Increasing the number of students taking the exams would most likely mean increasing the number of courses of fered, and expanding them to more than just the five Baltimore high schools that currently give them.
Passing an AP exam -- by scoring at least 3 on a scale of 1 to 5 -- generally earns a student college credit, depending on the college. It enables a student to begin at a higher-level course and in some cases to complete college in less than four years, thus saving both time and money.
Moreover, top colleges seek out students who have taken advanced placement courses because they have shown a willingness to strive academically, the Abell report notes.
Advanced placement courses have proliferated in U.S. high schools. Last year, 42 percent of the nation's high schools offered at least one AP course.
Nationally, some urban school officials have questioned whether is worth devoting resources to a small number of academically elite students when so many youngsters are so gravely ill-educated.
Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation, countered that the problem was really one of expectations. The number of students prepared for AP exams does not have to be small, he argued.
"If it's 3 percent, it could be 6 percent. If it's 6 percent, it could be 12 percent," he said last week.
"How else do we raise the level of education in this country to an international level?"
Mr. Embry also is president of the State Board of Education, which he said had talked about compiling AP participation rates at high schools throughout Maryland. They provide one of the few ways, he said, by which people can judge whether schools are doing enough for their students.
"How good are the schools? Are they really aspiring to excellence?" he asked.
City College, using a small grant from the Abell Foundation, launched an English AP course two years ago and has since added two courses in history. This year, 70 students are taking the English course, 76 are taking history, and a handful of students are preparing in German and Spanish, Joseph Antenson, the principal, said last week.
The principal expense in adding the courses, he said, was in buying textbooks.
"The difficulty with advanced placement is not [so much] materials as with the way it is taught," he said. "You're dealing with higher-order thinking skills, analysis, synthesis. Not this short-answer approach."
In 1986, no City College students took an AP exam. Last year, City students took 19 exams. This year, because of a change recommended by the Abell report, all students in AP courses will be required to take the exam. (A student does not have to take the course to take the exam, but the courses, which are approved by the College Board, are directly tailored to the exam questions students will face.)
Last year, Polytechnic Institute students took 11 AP exams, Dunbar students took 20, School for the Arts students took 22, and Western students took seven.
No one else in Baltimore took any.