The AP achievement gap

Our view: Md. students top the nation in AP pass rates, but narrowing the gap between rich and poor remains a challenge

February 13, 2012

For the fourth year in a row, Maryland students have topped the nation in the proportion of high school graduates who successfully passed the rigorous Advanced Placement exams, leaping even further ahead of other top states. Twenty-nine percent of last year's class passed at least one AP test, compared to the national average of 18 percent. Maryland's pass rate is double what it was a decade ago. The results suggest that the state's commitment to investing in education over recent years is paying off in bumper crops of students with the kind of advanced, high-level academic skills the state will need to compete successfully in a 21st-century knowledge-based global economy, and that's all to the good.

Having said that, however, the huge gap between the state's highest and lowest performing school districts remains cause for concern. While some schools in Montgomery, Howard, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties have seen anywhere from a quarter to more than half their graduating seniors successfully pass at least one AP exam, the numbers in Baltimore City and on the Eastern Shore are far less encouraging. Fewer than 3 percent of city students passed an AP exam, for example, and that represents an improvement. Some Eastern Shore counties had none at all because the school districts there couldn't afford to offer any AP courses. (Last year, the state won a federal grant to help reduce the AP disparity in Dorchester and Wicomico counties, and the state is the only one with a staff member devoted to reducing disparities in AP availability, so there is some hope on that score.)

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the gap in student achievement across the region tracks almost exactly the differences in wealth between the state's richest and poorest jurisdictions. A slew of new studies have shown that, for the first time, socioeconomic status is a more significant factor than race in predicting academic success. Low-income students have made significant gains in achievement over the last decade, but students from affluent families are improving at a far faster rate, regardless of race. As a result, while the racial achievement gap has narrowed significantly, the gap between rich and poor is actually growing wider.

As one might expect, the reason is that affluent families have far more time and resources to devote to their children's upbringing and education than do poor families, and the differences start long before a student ever sits down to take an AP exam. The intensive intellectual cultivation and stimulation that affluent parents — who are themselves likely to be more educated than their low-income peers — lavish on children literally begins in infancy continues throughout their school careers, and it includes everything from better diet, nutrition and health care to cultural activities, weekend sports and family vacations.

One study found that affluent parents spend nine times more than low-income parents on services and activities aimed at enriching their kids' experience, whereas in 1972 they spent only five times as much. Over the last 40 years child-related spending by upper-middle class families has more than doubled, while spending by low-income parents grew by only 20 percent.

And the effects on children are profound. By the age of 6, affluent children have spent 1,300 more hours outside their homes, day care centers or schools than low-income children, and they know 3,000 more words. By the time they enter school they have spent about 400 hours more than poor children on literacy activities. Given that these differences persist throughout students' academic careers, it's no wonder that when poor students start out behind, they are rarely able to catch up.

Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes for student achievement gaps that result from socioeconomic factors such as disparities in family income and education. In the short term, the best that may be possible is expanding poor and minority families' access to quality early education and pre-kindergarten programs that offer enrichment activities designed to enhance children's cognitive and learning skills. Maryland already ranks among the nation's top 10 states for early childhood education, but currently only about a third of its 75,000 4-year-olds are enrolled in such programs.

Efforts to close the achievement gap on AP tests between the state's wealthiest and poorest school districts need to start well before students are in high school, or even middle school. All the evidence suggests that solutions must focus on a child's earliest years and that AP test outcomes will be among the last indicators that the achievement gap between affluent and poor students is narrowing. The fact that Maryland is producing more high-achieving students than any other state is certainly cause for celebration. The challenge will be ensuring that greater numbers of low-income students eventually are able to take advantage of the educational opportunities enjoyed by their more affluent peers.

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