More black students are taking advanced courses

August 27, 2008|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,liz.bowie@baltsun.com

Significantly more African-American seniors in Maryland are taking and passing rigorous Advanced Placement tests, a key measure of high academic achievement, according to results released yesterday by the College Board.

The number of African-American students among last year's senior class taking the exams rose by nearly 30 percent from the year before to 7,812. Nearly half of those students - 3,498 - received a passing score on at least one of those exams.

The increasing participation by minorities around the state reflects the priority that state and local school systems have placed on getting more students to take tougher courses in high school that will prepare them for college. Typically, students who take the exams also are enrolled in the Advanced Placement courses. While there is no set AP curriculum, students who do well generally have been provided a higher level of instruction.

The College Board also released the SAT results for last year's seniors, which were flat, remaining below the national average, and still several points below the state average of several years ago.

However, the number of seniors who took an AP test rose by 10 percent and the pass rate increased by 4.6 percent. State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said she was particularly pleased with the results of the AP exams and believes they are the result of a continued focus by the state and school systems on helping more minorities take the exams.

The state has encouraged more students to take AP courses in subjects such as chemistry and history. Students have a choice of whether to take the AP exams at the end of the course. A top score may help in the college application process or allow a freshman to receive college credit in that subject.

Maryland has had one of the highest exam participation rates of any state in the nation, although the College Board did not release the rank for last year's seniors.

The average SAT scores in Maryland are still significantly below those of several years ago. The average math score, which has dropped for the previous two years, remained at 502; the critical reading score dropped one point to 499 and the writing score rose one point to 497.

Baltimore saw an increase in its SAT scores, with its reading score rising five points to 384 and writing rising six points to 387. The math score dropped one point to 374.

Several other school systems in the region saw increases as well. Howard County's average score on the reading portion increased three points to 540 and its math score rose one point to 557. The writing score went up 7 points to 544. Anne Arundel County's scores went down, particularly in reading, which dropped five points to the state average of 502.

Baltimore County officials did not release the county's scores. Officials said they had received the data and were reviewing it.

Grasmick said she believes that one of the reasons the SAT scores may not be improving statewide is because another competing exam, the ACT, is increasing in popularity among seniors applying to colleges.

Once rarely taken in Maryland, the test attracted 10,740 of last year's seniors, who took the test during their high school careers. That's up by about 3,000 from just two years ago. The state's scores on the ACT rose slightly, and are above the national average. Grasmick said there is some evidence that students don't like the new SAT, which added a writing section several years ago, making the test much longer.

"Even our most talented students academically have said this is a really long test," she said. "Now they are taking it once and then they are taking the ACT."

Most students have been encouraged to take the SAT more than once to improve their scores, she said, but they are now more resistant to retaking a long test and instead opt for the ACT. That means they are less likely to get the bump up in SAT scores on the second or third try, she said.

But there are other reasons the ACT may be growing in favor.

"The ACT folks have done a wonderful job of marketing their product to the Mid-Atlantic colleges," said Lynne Muller, coordinator for the Office of School Counseling in Baltimore County. Because it is now accepted by so many colleges, guidance counselors now encourage students to take the ACT as well. "We want to make sure we do all the preparation work."

Some students also believe they may score better on the ACT, a heavily curriculum-based test, according to Muller. She expressed skepticism. "I suspect it is an urban myth that the ACT is easier. They are all college prep tests," she said.

There isn't any evidence that Maryland students are abandoning the SAT, however. The number of SAT test takers rose by about 4 percent in the state last year. In Baltimore County, Muller said, the number of SAT takers has grown every year as well.

Taking both tests, she said, just gives students more options.

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