Measure of success

The College Board reports that Maryland high school students again led the country last year in their pass rate on Advanced Placement tests. Even better, the board reported that more African-American students earned passing scores than ever before. That Maryland has been able to increase the number and diversity of students taking AP classes while continuing to see rising test scores is a hopeful sign as the state stands poised to adopt a more challenging curriculum.

Last year, 29.6 percent of Maryland high seniors passed at least one of the AP exams, which are offered in 34 subjects including chemistry, calculus, English literature, history and foreign languages. Students are scored on a scale of 1 to 5, with a score of 3 considered passing.

Maryland also had the highest percentage of students taking AP math and science courses, a reflection of the state's long-term effort to improve the quality of instruction in the critical STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering and math, where the largest numbers of new jobs are being created. In today's knowledge-based economy, Maryland's ability to compete successfully in a global marketplace increasingly will depend on its ability to develop and retain a highly skilled work force.

The increase in the number of African-American students taking and passing the test is especially heartening because it suggest the state has made significant progress toward narrowing the achievement gap along racial and class lines. While the 11.4 percent of black students who passed an exam still lags the figure for whites, it is among the highest percentages in the nation and shows that it is possible to significantly expand access to AP courses and exams without lowering overall success rates. On the contrary, both enrollment and pass rates have continued to go up.

In fact, College Board officials say this year's results are particularly interesting because they seemed to suggest that many more minority and low-income students could succeed on the AP exams if given the opportunity. More than 964,000 students nationwide took an AP exam last year, double the number a decade earlier. Often, when an academically rigorous exam is expanded to include a more diverse student population, average scores and the percentage of students passing tends to go down. But this year students in Maryland and elsewhere seemed to be bucking that trend.

Those results led board officials to estimate there may be as many as 300,000 more students nationwide who could succeed in AP courses. Currently, only 3 out of 10 African-American and Hispanic students in Maryland who officials believe have the potential to excel in AP math classes actually enroll in them. Nationally, blacks made up 14.5 percent of the nation's high school students but just 9.2 percent of those taking AP exams.

Clearly, more work needs to be done on closing the gaps that remain. State schools Superintendent Lillian M. Lowery has said her goal is to make a highly rigorous academic curriculum available to every child in the state, which would surely enable even more low-income and minority students to do well on the assessments.

Meanwhile, the fact that more Maryland students overall are taking AP courses and doing well on the exams is a tribute to the investment the state has made in its educational system during the last decade. Those investments have not only helped the state recruit and retain better teachers, but they have also enabled more schools to offer more AP classes. Maryland has shown it can expand the number of students achieving high standards, and that experience will be invaluable as it joins more than 40 other states in adopting the rigorous Common Core curriculum.

Maryland's educational and political leaders like to brag about our No. 1 rankings from Education Week, but our continued leadership in AP test results is an even greater cause for celebration.

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