School rates magnifique on test

Annapolis' Key School excels in French AP exam while other schools strive to increase participation

February 11, 2007|By Ruma Kumar | Ruma Kumar,SUN REPORTER

Madeline McCrary started taking French in second grade at Key School, at a time when most of her peers in public schools were just beginning to develop their English vocabulary.

Casual French conversations progressed to French grammar and essay writing by the time she was in seventh grade. Now, as a 17-year-old senior at the Annapolis private school, she is analyzing Voltaire and French dramatist Jean Giraudoux.

With that training, it's not surprising that she is part of a group of students who helped Key School lead the nation in the percentage of students with top scores on the Advanced Placement French Literature exam.

In a new College Board report, the private school ranked first in the nation among schools with fewer than 300 students in grades 10 to 12 because 11 of its 200 upper school students, more than 5 percent, took the test taken by about 1,800 students across the country.

Although public schools are using some of Key School's tactics - smaller class sizes and a greater focus on hands-on learning and experiments - public school educators say unfunded mandates, teacher shortages in advanced math, science and foreign language, and ever-tightening funding make it hard for public schools to get results like Key's.

At Northeast High in Pasadena, about 70 percent of the school's 347 seniors take AP classes, but fewer than a third take the AP tests.

Administrators say the students avoid the tests because they are intimidated, the same reason many of them avoid taking college entrance exams such as the SAT.

For Kathryn Kubic, principal at Northeast, boosting the number of students who take AP tests is one challenge among many, including increasing graduation rates and college attendance rates, and stemming ninth- and 10th-grade dropout rates.

"We keep telling them, you've got to step up to the plate if you want to bat," Kubic said. "We're working hard to change that."

Last week's report lauded the state for having the second-highest success rate on the tests, which thousands of high school students take hoping to gain credit for college courses.

Around the country, the public, the media and think tanks that track school performance use the number of AP courses and tests taken as a measure of the quality of public and private high schools.

Key School was among five Maryland schools recognized in the report for having the highest percentage of top scores on one or more AP tests. Four of the schools are private; the fifth is a magnet public school.

One in five public high school graduates in Maryland scored well enough on the tests to earn college credit, the College Board found.

The state is struggling to raise achievement among African-American seniors, 14 percent of whom took AP tests.

"We place a high priority on identifying the underrepresented students, Latino, African-American students, students with economic disadvantage. We have overcome a total achievement gap with the Latino students, [and] with the African-American students it has narrowed considerably," said state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. Work is being done to help teachers "identify the most promising students, but not necessarily the ones that jump out at you," she said.

Public schools are recruiting students to take AP courses and take the exams, which isn't necessary at Key School, said Todd Casey, head of the upper school.

"So much of what we encourage is to learn for learning's sake," he said. "It's not a matter of pushing kids toward an AP exam. By the time our kids in the French program get to upper school, they're motivated on their own to succeed, and they seek out the AP classes and the test as an additional challenge."

There is little talk of test preparation at Key School. Most tests at the school aren't multiple-choice, but rather open-ended essays or projects designed to push students to apply what they have learned in class in new ways.

A history lesson about the Constitution, for instance, involves an exercise that gets students to stage a constitutional convention of their own. The students are asked to come up with human rights and laws that they would have bestowed on a developing nation.

English and history classes are often combined into a larger humanities course in which students research topics like historians and write open-ended essays.

Without that progression, Casey said, "you open the door for kids either being pushed or allowed into AP classes for which they're not adequately prepared, who don't have sufficient study skills or the fundamental courses they need."

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