Maryland leads the nation in improvement for African-American high school graduates who passed Advanced Placement exams, but the achievement gaps between black achievers and their peers still remain vast.
Overall, the state ranked No. 1 in the nation for the third year in a row in graduates who received a passing grade of 3 or higher on the tests, the result of a decade-long push to have more students prepared and taking the rigorous college-level exams.
But African-Americans in the state still represent a small percentage of those who pass the tests.
Only one in 10 of the students who had passed an AP test by the time they had finished high school last year were African-American in a state in which blacks represent more than one-third of the graduates each year.
In Baltimore County, the differences are most stark. The county's top-performing schools have some of the highest success rates for the class of 2010 of any system in the Baltimore region — even beating out the best schools in Howard and Anne Arundel counties — but the county's lowest-performing schools, with large minority populations, have success rates of less than 5 percent.
"African-American students nationwide remain under-represented. That is a nationwide problem that is stark, and no state has addressed that problem," said Trevor Packer, vice president of the College Board, the nonprofit that develops and grades the test.
A decade ago, 6.5 percent of high school graduates who were successful on the exams in Maryland were black; today that figure is 9.9 percent. While that is a small increase, Packer said, most states have shown little improvement. While Maryland saw a 3.4 percentage point change, the increase in the national average was just 1 percentage point. And even in Baltimore County, black student pass rates in all grades have increased from 38 percent two years ago to 41 percent last year.
Across the state, 26.4 percent of 2010 graduates had gotten a 3 or better on at least one AP class during their high school careers, higher than New York with 24.6 percent or Virginia, Connecticut and Massachusetts, all states with a 23 percent pass rate. Mississippi had a pass rate of 4.4 percent, the lowest in the nation.
"I think Maryland has done better because we have really focused on preparing teachers and ensuring that we have AP offerings in our schools," state school Superintendent Nancy Grasmick said.
The College Board highlighted the state's push toward getting more students prepared, starting as early as middle school, to take a curriculum that challenges them to think more critically. Officials stopped Wednesday morning at Arbutus Middle School in Baltimore County to sit in on an eighth-grade class that was using a College Board curriculum in a language arts class. Students were asked to analyze a video and a piece of writing from different points of view.
While Maryland has doubled the number of students taking AP classes over the past decade, large numbers still get grades of 1 or 2 on the tests.
Of the Baltimore metropolitan districts, Baltimore City had the lowest scores, with an average pass rate of 3.5 percent. Even the best schools in the city had rates far below most other schools around the region. For instance, Polytechnic Institute and Western High School were both at 16 percent while the Baltimore School for the Arts was at 17.9 percent. And many high schools had no students passing any AP exams.
Having success with some unprepared students is not impossible. Dennis Jutras, a former AP teacher at Polytechnic Institute in Baltimore, said the key is realizing that students' abilities and desire have to be equally as strong.
"Part of it is identifying students who want to be challenged in the AP environment," said Jutras, who now works for the city school system, mentoring teachers and helping develop curriculum for social studies. "That means looking at the data to determine what students are likely to do well, and also go beyond that and look at who wants to expose themselves to more rigor.
"You can have a brilliant kid, but if you don't have that desire, they're not going to succeed."
In Baltimore County, pass rates at its top schools were the highest in the region; however, the county also had some of the lowest-performing schools. Two magnet schools with entrance criteria, the Carver Center for the Arts and Eastern Technical High School, were at 61 percent and 60 percent, respectively.
Towson High School in Baltimore County had 57 percent of its 2010 graduates passing at least one AP, the highest score of any comprehensive high school in the region. But at Woodlawn, a predominantly African-American school, less than 1 percent of the graduating class of 2010 were successful on at least one AP test.
"We created a brain drain in some of the underperforming schools," said Baltimore County Superintendent Joe A. Hairston in explaining some of the large differences among schools in his county. The higher-performing schools, he said, have magnet programs that attract some of the best students. But, he said, he hopes that the AP programs that are now starting in middle schools across the county will produce results in high schools in several years.
In Anne Arundel County, Severna Park High School had the highest pass rate of 56 percent, far above the 30 percent for county schools overall. Annapolis High School, which was considered a failing school just several years ago, now has 36 percent of its graduates passing an AP test.
In Howard County, River Hill High School was at 45.7 percent.
Baltimore Sun reporter Erica L. Green contributed to this article.