Destiny Miller went online this summer to check one last set of grades from her senior year at Woodlawn High School — scores on three Advanced Placement exams.
The 18-year-old sat alone on her bed waiting for the scores to appear on her smartphone. For many top students like Destiny, the scores might seem an academic footnote; she already had her diploma and had been admitted to college. Yet the idea that she might not have succeeded on the AP tests made her so anxious that, just as the scores began to download, she turned her phone face down, unable to look.
Destiny was experiencing the pressures of being a pioneer on the frontier of Advanced Placement, one of thousands of minority, low-income students being targeted for a nationwide expansion of the rigorous college-level courses. She took a deep breath, turned her phone back over and looked at the three numbers on the screen.
For such students, the scores show how well their education prepared them for college and whether they might earn college course credits, potentially saving thousands of dollars in tuition. For federal and state education officials who have invested $400 million in taxpayer dollars over the past decade to subsidize AP exams for bright, low-income students, the stakes are even higher.
So far, the expansion has not lived up to its promise. It has not delivered vast numbers of students from low-performing high schools to selective colleges with credits in their pockets, helping to bridge the academic gulf between the nation's rich and poor. Too often, students who haven't been prepared in earlier grades flounder in AP classes, or are awarded A's and B's in the courses and then fail the AP exams.
The high grades for course work can lull students into a false sense of security, said Steve Syverson, a board member of the National Association of College Admission Counseling and a former dean of admissions at Lawrence University in Wisconsin. Many students arrive at college with AP courses on their transcripts, but with skills so low they must take remedial classes.
"The kids are ... doing what society is telling them to do," he said. "We just set those kids up for complete failure because they just get hammered when they get to college."
A Baltimore Sun analysis of test scores showed a troubling discrepancy between grades for AP course work and scores on the exams. In at least 19 high schools throughout the Baltimore region, more than half of the students who earned an A or B in an AP class failed the exam.
Failure rates of 75 percent on the exam were common at Woodlawn and other Maryland schools with large numbers of minority and low-income students. For the 2011-2012 school year, the most recent available data, about 40 percent of students who took an AP test in the nation failed. But nearly 75 percent of African-American students nationwide failed, and the pass rates for Latinos and low-income students are far below those for whites and Asians.
By expanding the reach of Advanced Placement, the College Board, which administers the program, has created a de facto national curriculum for high achievers, and Maryland is the leading participant in the U.S. More than half of the state's public school graduates now take an AP class and nearly 30 percent have passed at least one exam, the highest rate in the country. In that sense, Maryland schools have become a laboratory for the nation.
Despite that glowing record, a close look at the data shows that students at many schools struggle.
Trevor Packer, head of AP for the College Board, acknowledges that the program is being misused in some schools, with students taking classes before they are ready. For instance, he said, 20,000 African-American students in Maryland took AP exams last year, but the College Board predicted that only 2,000 had a strong chance of passing because of scores on other tests.
Still, Packer is reluctant to intercede in local decisions about which students should take the classes. The College Board believes that most students still benefit from AP and should have that opportunity, he said, adding that there is no precise way to predict which individuals will succeed.
The exams are lucrative for the College Board, the New York-based nonprofit that already has a huge impact on the post-graduation ambitions of American high schoolers with its SAT test and CSS-Profile for financial aid. The organization reported total revenue of $720 million in 2011, the latest available, with AP and the PSAT test generating more than half of that figure. Packer declined to break out revenues from AP, but said that money is invested in the program to improve results.
Helping to drive the use of AP, federal officials sent Maryland $589,000 to subsidize exam fees for low-income students in 2012. County governments spent another $451,700 on the fees, and principals pulled money out of their budgets to help students who couldn't pay the fees but weren't poor enough to qualify for a subsidy. Most of the $89 exam fees, though, are paid out of family budgets.
A rough start
Destiny felt a bit intimidated last August as she first opened the squeaky, heavy metal door of Brian Patterson's meticulously organized biology classroom at Woodlawn. Only 14 students had signed up for the double-period class, which required mastery of complex material and lots of homework. She had looked forward to the class because she wanted to major in biology in college, but she knew Patterson was a tough grader.
The eldest of five children in a family centered by faith and church, Destiny hoped to be the first in her immediate family to graduate from college. With above-average SAT scores (between 530 and 600 on each section) and good grades, Destiny was the type of student selective colleges were seeking. She dreamed of a career in medicine or the sciences.
If she could get high scores on her AP exams in May, the college she chose might accept the credits and allow her to graduate earlier with less debt. Her mother, who was trying to take a few community college classes while juggling family duties, and her stepfather, a truck driver, did not want her to take on any debt.
But finding time to study was tough. On top of a heavy academic schedule that included three AP courses, Destiny's week was jammed with sports, duties as senior class secretary, church and a part-time job at McDonald's.
Success on the AP exams had eluded Destiny — and most of her Woodlawn classmates. Her highest score on the four exams she had taken so far was a 2, in English. The College Board grades on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the equivalent of an A to B+ in an introductory college course. A score of 3 is needed to pass.
"There is a discouraging factor, but for me I haven't been taught to give up on anything so it makes me try to study harder and do things differently," said Destiny, who is soft-spoken and serious. Her face is framed by red glasses, and her long fingers sometimes float through the air as she talks. A sprinter on Woodlawn's track and field team, she has the lithe body of a runner.
When Destiny got the first reading assignment, in a textbook designed for college introductory biology classes, she dug in. She had read hard texts in other AP classes, but this was far more difficult. The important parts weren't bolded, so she did not know where to focus her attention. "OK, it is going to be a very long year," she told herself.
In the first few days of school, Patterson noticed that his new class had a keen interest in biology, a great sign. But he knew challenges lay ahead, the greatest of which would be to teach his students — experts at getting good grades by spitting back basic material — to analyze complex information.
Patterson, a young teacher with a no-nonsense demeanor, tried different approaches to reach his students. In one class, he threw himself into the story of Phineas Gage, a railroad worker who survived an accident that sent an iron rod through his skull but that left his personality changed. He wanted students to understand what Gage's experience taught scientists about the frontal lobe. They listened intently and then used scalpels to gingerly poke preserved sheep brains to identify the area damaged in Gage's accident.
But on another day his students were tentative and barely spoke as they tried to do an experiment. The goal was to determine whether the rate of respiration in plants or animals was affected by temperature, using crickets in big glass jars and seeds that had been germinating.
Seeing the uncertainty on his students' faces, he tried to give direction without dictating the next steps. But he was left asking the most basic of questions: "How will you divide up the work?" and "You all are writing this down as you go, aren't you?"
When Patterson gave the first test, Destiny studied hard and thought she nailed it. She was shocked by the result: a C.
"It really scared me," she said.
AP has a broad reach in Maryland and across the nation as students try to get a jump on college. Two million students now take the exams nationwide. And in Maryland, the number of students sitting for an exam grew from just 8,447 students in 1990 to 55,000 students last year.
Created in 1954, AP was designed for elite students from the best high schools who were trying to skip introductory college classes by taking a tough exam.
Every year since the first exams were given to 543 students, AP has expanded to more high schools and more students, but the leap from well-known to widely used came during the past decade. In 2006, President George W. Bush set a goal of tripling the number of students taking AP classes in science and math within five years.
States embraced the movement, and then-Maryland schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick pushed to expand the courses to underserved groups. "We had whole [school districts] where we didn't have AP offerings," she recalled.
With the help of the College Board, she created a color-coded map highlighting the districts offering the most and fewest AP courses. At least once a year she showed local superintendents which district was winning the AP race.
The colors on the Maryland map quickly changed, until nearly every school offered AP.
Part of the expansion has come at top schools like Dulaney High, where students last year were crammed into two slightly worn-looking AP biology classrooms that lacked air-conditioning but had a wealth of lab supplies. In one were 29 seniors, seasoned veterans of AP, having taken biology, physics, chemistry and high-level math.
Martin Stranathan's students ranged from blond prepsters to native Hindi speakers, but all viewed themselves in a competition for the top universities. They enrolled in four to six AP classes and aimed for a 5 on the exams.
"We are a community," said Jiaxi "Josh" Wei, a Chinese immigrant. "If we don't work hard we are going to be left behind."
Like Destiny, Josh wanted a career in medicine, but he understood more clearly what it would take. He came from a line of doctors. His father does medical research and his mother holds a doctorate. When he entered high school, his parents told him they expected him to work hard enough to get into a good college.
Stranathan had many students like Josh. He knew that when the bell rang at 7:50 a.m. everyone would be seated and ready to go. No one wandered in late, as they would at Woodlawn, and nearly everyone kept up with the reading — about 13 pages a night of dry, difficult material.
Stranathan, a soft-spoken, slightly rumpled teacher, focused on asking questions and allowing students to discuss issues, instead of using lectures and PowerPoint presentations.
"If you can talk your way through the content, then you will understand it," he said.
During the hour-and-a-half-long class, they discussed the causes of hypo- and hyperthyroidism, conditions in which the thyroid gland produces too much or not enough of a hormone, and the endocrine and exocrine systems, glands that secrete hormones into the blood system or ducts.
"He makes us solve the question ourselves, never just sit there and take notes," said Josh.
While the College Board defines what topics will be covered on the exam, it does not give teachers a specific curriculum. So they must create their own lessons and decide how far to push their students.
The contrasts between the AP biology classrooms ran deep. While Dulaney students pored over the textbook, Woodlawn students looked for shortcuts. Patterson assigned the same reading that Stranathan did and required students to answer study questions to ensure that they were doing the assignments. But some students procrastinated, never reading the entire text and just looking up answers online, according to Patterson and students.
Destiny felt she needed two to three hours a night to read the textbook carefully, and she didn't have time to do that. She worked three days a week until 10 p.m. and all day Saturday when she wasn't playing sports. So she focused on skimming certain sections and concentrating on others. She got a B in the first quarter, falling short of her own expectations.
Stranathan expected nearly all of his students to pass the exam, so his goal was to deepen their ability to think and analyze. Patterson knew his odds of success weren't good — only 7 percent of Woodlawn students enrolled in an AP class had passed the exam the year before — but he tried to keep expectations high.
Critics have charged that the AP label is not consistently applied at all schools. Many students at low-performing schools are ill-prepared for the courses, said Kristin Klopfenstein, executive director for the Education Innovation Institute at the University of Northern Colorado.
"A common response to the access problem was to helicopter-drop AP courses into disadvantaged high schools," she said. "The thinking was that this would improve these schools by setting high expectations."
Calling a class AP when it's not taught at a college level can leave students with the misperception that they are prepared to take college classes when they are not. Often when students arrive at college, they must take a remedial class in math or English before they go on to credit-bearing college classes in the subject. No Maryland data are available specifically on AP students and remediation.
For instance, 31 percent of entering freshmen at four-year public colleges in Maryland need remediation, including 41 percent of students at Frostburg University and 79 percent at Morgan State University. Those who have a rough start can end up never graduating.
Nationwide, slightly more than half of students will graduate from the four-year college where they started, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The financial and personal cost to those who don't finish is serious: Many will leave with debt and no degree.
The dark days of winter brought a depressing dose of reality in some AP classrooms.
Some students who started out in Patterson's biology class disappeared from the seats beside Destiny.
It was far worse in Adam Sutton's AP economics class at Woodlawn. From 50 students in September, Sutton was down to 27. His students drifted away one by one, transferring to easier classes.
"There are select students at Woodlawn capable of meeting AP standards, but many have skills that are not up to par; I refuse to lie to my students about where they are with regards to meeting AP standards," Sutton said. "They need to meet my expectations — mine won't fall to meet theirs."
Woodlawn doesn't have a critical mass of top students who have grown up in a culture of high achievement, teachers said. Too often, students sail through the gifted and honors classes with top grades by showing up and following directions. And when they look around the school, they see themselves as the best students.
"What they don't understand is that their competition is actually down the street at Dulaney and Towson and Hereford," Sutton said, referring to top-performing schools.
Teachers handed in their first semester grades in late January. Destiny had been studying hard and doing all the extra credit work, but was worried about the last several tests.
So when report cards were passed out, she grabbed hers and scurried to the gym to get ready for a track meet. She tore open the envelope and saw a C in biology.
"I cried really hard," she said. "I have never gotten a C on my report card in high school. ... That just broke my heart."
She began to wonder if she was good enough in biology or science to make it her focus in college. "I went into a period of doubt and rethinking," she said.
But even as Destiny was doubting herself, Patterson felt his students were finally gaining the skills he wanted to see. He asked his students to give a presentation on a genetic disorder, allowing them only one index card of information as they sat around a table, seminar style. It was a test of whether they could read, absorb and own the material.
"Most of my students were finally able to speak, as an expert, about their topic to the rest of the class," he said.
Another critical juncture in the AP classrooms arrived in mid-March, when students had to commit to taking and paying for the exam.
Every school district develops its own policy on the $89 fees. In most cases, families pay the full price, although the College Board gives $8 back to the school for administrative costs. Most of the fee is waived for low-income students, with federal dollars paying $45 and the College Board paying $26. Low-income students, such as Destiny, must pay $10, but some principals will pay a portion of that from their school budgets.
Sign-up day flew by in Stranathan's Dulaney classroom without much notice. Everyone would take the exam.
But when exam day came, only five of Patterson's 12 students showed up in Woodlawn's light-filled multi-purpose room. Overall, only a third of the students enrolled in an AP class at Woodlawn took the exam.
Destiny, who was getting better grades in biology, arrived wearing sweat pants with her hair piled on top of her head, ready for the three-hour ordeal. The students flipped through their study guides and fretted aloud as they worried that some gap in their knowledge would be on the test.
Josh, meanwhile, was so confident that he showed up just 10 minutes before the exam, after picking up a coffee. Later, he was a little shaken by how prepared he was and how easy the exam had been, as though he must have missed something.
When the scores on the biology exam were released in July, Josh had gotten a 4, a shock to Stranathan, who considered the soon-to-be Penn State freshman one of his top students. The teacher believed the results reflected a change in the test; nationwide, it was harder for students to get a perfect score but easier to pass.
Two of Patterson's students passed the exam — his best result yet — but Destiny was not among them.
She failed her other AP exams this year, too. In total, she had taken seven AP courses at Woodlawn, but had failed each exam.
Still, Destiny's mother, Cateasha Miller-Marshall, felt the AP courses had been good for her daughter because the honors and gifted and talented courses had not been challenging enough.
"As far as test taking, [Woodlawn students] don't do as well as people would presume. I wonder if they are being adequately prepared to take the test?" she said.
Baltimore County school Superintendent Dallas Dance says the county needs to begin preparing students in middle school for AP and give those in high school the extra help they need to be successful. "I am not in favor of pushing all kids into AP, because AP is not for every kid, but we can't have barriers," he said.
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.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun