Behind Maryland's AP success: An opportunity gap

July 09, 2011

I have just read Pro Publica's damning statistics about unequal access to advanced courses and special programs for students in Maryland. While Maryland has the highest percentage of students taking at least one Advanced Placement course in the country, deeper analysis reveals that most of the students enrolled in these programs come from the wealthier schools in the state. According to Pro Publica, Maryland schools in high poverty areas have far fewer students taking challenging AP courses.

Maryland educational authorities often boast about the high percentage of Maryland students who take AP courses and many times your paper has published articles on this subject without the breakdown that Pro Publica has done. Bridging the achievement gap in Maryland will be impossible to accomplish if smug satisfaction takes precedence over introspection and truth for policymakers.

Have we given up on our poor students? We argue endlessly about how more money cannot do it, how teacher accountability will not cut it and how parents and students have to step up to the plate and do more to change the culture of learning. We have just confronted a cheating scandal in Baltimore at the level of elementary education and previous statistics showing achievement gains in Baltimore have been overshadowed by this gross ethical lapse in which school officials themselves may have been involved. Baltimore's school chief has a shiny new 4-year contract despite the scandal, his annual salary of $230,000 bolstered by an additional $10,000 each year in bonuses.

Maryland coasts on shallow success. Every educational advancement in Maryland is dimmed by the fact that poor students are offered less challenges in high school. From elementary school on, even their own teachers expect less from these students. The cheating scandal clearly shows that some school officials, apprehensive about their students' abilities, set about erasing wrong answers and replacing them, presumably, with the right ones so the school will look good on paper.

Students who have been cheated out of an education at the elementary stage arrive in high school ill prepared, and once again, as Pro Publica points out, they are cheated because they are not exposed to high-level courses. The lack of preparedness and low-level school work chase each other in a vicious cycle.

Apparently Florida's poor students have escaped the self-fulfilling prophecy of low expectations that doomed them in the past. Florida stands top in the nation in equal access to high level courses for poor students. It still has much work to do in the area of student standardized test performance, but it is forging forward to make sure that poverty does not deter students from tackling complex subjects.

Is it so hard to get students excited about learning? We have the technical tools to do it. We need our universities and our scientists involved in the process. We need to collaborate with the College Board that administers the AP exams — as Florida did — to close the opportunity gap. This opportunity gap may be impairing our state's poor students more than we realize and may be a significant cause of the achievement gap.

Children are naturally curious, and they love mental stimulation. We can override the debilitating effects of poverty and crime-ridden neighborhoods by turning our students on to difficult subjects, the mastery of which should take them away from the streets and into the libraries.

More numbers of people are falling into poverty in our nation. School buses are stopping at shelters and motels to pick up students. Should we tell all these kids that they are incapable of understanding higher math, complex computer algorithms and fascinating chemistry or physics? Should we consign them to technical and work training? Our educational system is so haphazard we don't seem to have a consensus on any of these important questions.

Usha Nellore, Bel Air

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