State officials are proud that so many students have access to AP classes. "As we have opened access, we have also maintained significant consistency with students scoring 3 or better," said state school Superintendent Lillian Lowery.
Exam results for the 2011-2012 school year show that the most talented students in poorly performing schools — those who show up and work hard against the odds — still are struggling. For example, in Dorchester and Prince George's counties and Baltimore City, about a quarter of the students sitting for an AP exam passed it. Yet most of those students had earned an A or B in their AP classes.
Even in Anne Arundel County, which had higher overall pass rates, 62 percent of students in the county with high grades were passing the exam.
In the highest-performing high schools, students are taking multiple exams and doing well. At River Hill High School in Howard County, 90 percent of students got an A or B in the classes, and 87 percent passed the exam.
But in more than a dozen schools around the region, students who did well in the course did not perform as well on the exams. For instance, at Glen Burnie High in Anne Arundel, only 37 percent of students who got an A or B passed the exam. At North Carroll High in Carroll County, that number was 42 percent.
Despite the poor results at Woodlawn and similar schools, many teachers continue to support the AP program because top students will be challenged to analyze and do more homework in AP classes than honors classes. And they believe students will do better in college if they take an AP course. No research shows that students do better in college if they take an AP course but fail the exam, a fact the College Board's Packer acknowledges.
There is, however, some research evidence suggesting that students who pass the exam may get better college grades or graduate at higher rates, and the College Board widely reports those links. But no conclusive research exists.
"Motivated kids enroll in AP courses, and motivated kids get into good colleges and succeed in those colleges. When we evaluate the AP program on college entry and success, we want to make sure we are measuring the effect of AP separately from the effect of student motivation," said Dylan Conger, associate professor of public policy and public administration at George Washington University's Trachtenberg School, who with other researchers is beginning an experimental study this fall.
Destiny was deeply disappointed in her scores but felt optimistic on one front: She scored a 2 in biology.
"I was very happy I got the high score in biology. It showed that I had learned something and that science really is my niche in academics," she said.
She won't get college credit, but it gave her hope that when she goes off to Tuskegee University in Alabama this month she won't have to give up her dream.
Liz Bowie researched this article while she was a Spencer Fellow in education reporting at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.
What is Advanced Placement?
Classes, offered in two-thirds of U.S. high schools in more than 30 subjects, are designed to be the equivalent of introductory-level college courses.
Each May, about 2 million students take the exams, which are made up of multiple choice and essay questions.
Scores range from a 1 to a 5, with 5 being the equivalent of an A in a college course and a 3 considered to be passing.
Some colleges give credit for scores of 3 or better. Students can use AP credits to graduate early or to skip introductory classes and enroll in higher-level courses.