Baltimore City plays catch-up on AP tests

Our view: We'll know whether school reform is working when city students catch up with the rest of the state on the Advanced Placement exams

February 10, 2011

While it's heartening to know the College Board has again named Maryland first in the nation for the number of high school students who take Advanced Placement tests and score well enough to get credit for mastery of a subject, a closer look at the figures shows there are still big disparities between the state's best- and worst-performing school districts. Despite recent gains in the Baltimore City school system, just 3.5 percent of the class of 2010 got a passing grade on at least one test, putting the city far behind neighboring jurisdictions where average AP pass scores were as much as eight times higher.

That's not good, but it may not be quite as bad as it looks. The AP tests are just one measure of overall student achievement, and they're also closely associated with family income. In Baltimore City, where 80 percent of students come from families that qualify them for free or reduced price lunches, it's not surprising that those who were already in high school three years ago, when the reforms initiated by city schools CEO Andrés Alonso were just getting underway, are now scoring less well than their peers in more affluent jurisdictions. Advanced Placement tests should be seen as a lagging indicator of progress in the city schools, given that it takes years of preparation — often dating to middle school — for students to master the skills necessary for success on these college-level exams.

Yet Mr. Alonso and his staff have set ambitious goals for dramatically raising the percentage of city students passing at least one AP exam to 50 percent over the next three years. That would put the city ahead of even the best suburban districts and greatly increase the number of college- or work-ready graduates Baltimore City produces every year.

How do they intend to do it? The first step is increasing the number of city schools offering AP courses so that more students have access to the rigorous curriculum that goes with them. Three years ago, only 14 of the city's 40 public and charter high schools offered any AP course. Last year that number had increased to 36. Meanwhile, the number of students enrolled in AP courses has grown steadily. In 2009 only 1,583 students were enrolled in AP courses out of a senior class of some 4,400. A year later, that number had risen to 2,487.

Granted, only a fraction of those students scored well enough on the tests to get college credit for mastering their subject, which explains why the city's overall pass rate remains so low. But Mr. Alonso argues there's benefit to increasing the number of students taking the courses even if they don't pass because students are exposed to the higher expectations and more rigorous curriculum expected at the college level. That means they gain valuable experience in critical thinking and the development of good study habits that will increase their ability to succeed in college or the workplace after they graduate.

Along with increasing access to AP courses, school officials will focus on raising pass rates. That's more difficult because the skills and study habits essential to earning higher scores are learned long before students enter their senior year in high school. To meet that need, the city intends to set up a series of summer enrichment programs targeting middle-school students who plan to attend the city's non-selective high schools and want to prepare for college. The six-week programs would offer intensive counseling and mentoring programs in addition to academic tutoring. At the same time, the school department will offer summer training programs for teachers to increase the number of qualified AP course instructors.

All these efforts are based in Mr. Alonso's deep belief that poverty should be no barrier to academic achievement. If he can prove it by raising city students' AP scores to levels comparable to those of surrounding districts, Baltimore would become a model for school reform across the nation. More than that, it would prod even school districts with high overall AP pass rates to address the often huge gulf in student achievement between individual high schools. Baltimore County, for example, has the top schools in the region for AP tests, but it also had several that ranked near the very bottom — including Woodlawn High School, where just 0.8 percent of the class of 2010 passed an AP test. If Baltimore, with all its problems, can make the effort to show that all students are capable of performing at high levels regardless of socioeconomic status, there's no excuse for far richer school systems not to do the same.

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