Maryland again ranks first in the nation in the percentages of high school seniors taking and passing Advanced Placement exams, according to a report released Wednesday by the College Board.
Maryland surpassed longtime leader New York last year and has improved its numbers since then, with 24.8 percent of high school seniors earning a score of 3 or higher on one AP test compared to 23.4 percent the previous year. Maryland also became the first state in which more than 40 percent of seniors took at least one AP exam.
Though low-income and African-American students remain underrepresented among the test takers, state leaders trumpeted the results as payoff in their quest to push students into more challenging classes.
"What's important is that we don't just have a lot of students taking the test, but we're teaching the material with real fidelity to the national standards and having students score 3, 4 and 5 on the tests," said state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. "That's what distinguishes Maryland."
New York and Virginia finished second and third in the rankings. Nationally, 15.9 percent of seniors scored 3 or higher on at least one AP test, and 26.5 percent took at least one test.
Advanced Placement classes are considered the equivalent of college course work at the high-school level. At the end of each course, most students take a national exam that is graded on a 5-point scale. Scores of 3 or higher allow students to place out of entry-level courses at most colleges. The results help measure the rigor of academic programs offered in high schools and state systems.
Maryland has done an unusually good job of preparing students with rigorous course work in the lower grades, said Trevor Packer, vice president of the AP program for College Board. "That's one reason why they've been able to move steadily up the rankings," he said.
Measures of AP success are important because U.S. students need to take harder courses to compete in the global job market, said Jack Jennings of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy.
"Kids throughout the world are taking more challenging courses," he said. "A student educated in Baltimore is not just competing with New York but with kids from China. The world is not standing still."
Jennings added that "in general, Maryland has a lot to be proud of."
Grasmick said the state has benefited from having a staff member whose salary is partially paid by College Board and who focuses on professional development for AP teachers and on finding students from underserved demographics who might perform well on the tests.
Though counties such as Montgomery and Howard have long excelled on AP measures, state leaders noted that the recent success is broad-based, with more than 30 percent of students taking an AP test in 14 of 24 counties. In Baltimore County, for example, 9,017 exams were taken and 6,170 produced scores of 3 or better, compared with 3,625 taken and 2,588 scores of 3 or higher 10 years ago.
Significant gaps remain between richer and poorer systems and between African-American students and their peers.
The report lauded Maryland as one of 16 states that has reduced the achievement gap for Hispanic students. Hispanics constituted 7.5 percent of students who took and passed an AP test, while making up 6.8 percent of the state's graduating seniors.
There was more of a gap among low-income students, who made up 12.9 percent of graduating seniors taking an AP exam but only 10.4 percent of those earning a score of 3 or higher. However, the low-income students taking and passing the tests were up more than 5 percentage points in both categories from 2004.
The numbers were less promising for African-American students, who accounted for 9.6 percent of the students taking and passing an exam but were 34.9 percent of graduating seniors in the state. Such gaps were typical among states with large African-American populations.
Grasmick added that fundamental reforms in Baltimore City and Prince George's County have laid the groundwork for improvement in African-American scores in the coming years.
City statistics show that the number of AP tests taken by Baltimore students has nearly doubled over the last five years and jumped to 1,382 last year from 1,183 the year before. Seventeen schools offered AP courses, compared with 10 in 2004.
But as access to tests has improved, pass rates have not. Of those 1,382 tests, about 23 percent resulted in scores of 3 or higher. That's down from the pass rate of 31.8 percent in 2004. Such declines are common, officials said, when students from struggling schools are initially pushed to take the examinations.
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