Students at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, the top-rated public high school in the city, can enroll in more than two dozen Advanced Placement courses. They’re able to do accelerated work in history and physics and chemistry and English, with the potential to earn college credit in those subjects should they pass a final exam.
But access to AP classes is wildly uneven across the city. Nine traditional high schools didn’t offer any of these courses last year, district documents show, and five schools had just one.
That’s changing. The district is embarking on a three-year plan with the goal of having six AP classes, including a research capstone, offered at every high school in the city. When classes start in September, every high school in Baltimore is expected to offer at least one AP course.
“We’re committed to a thoughtful expansion and a faithful expansion of these courses,” said Dennis Jutras, coordinator of the district’s Gifted and Advanced Learning program. “We want to make sure the courses have value and we bring them to as many corners of the district as is physically possible.”
If this rollout is done right, Jutras says, the district will start moving the needle from just talking about getting students college-ready to actually preparing kids for that next step. According to the College Board, which administers the program, AP courses offer better preparation for college studies, while also in some cases giving students credits for work done in high school.
Baltimore joins urban districts across the country that are expanding AP access. Three years ago, D.C. public schools started requiring all high schools to offer a minimum of eight AP courses. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “AP for All” initiative pledges that by 2021 all city schools will provide students with the opportunity to take at least five.
The College Board grades the final exam on a scale of 1 to 5. A score of 3 and above is widely considered passing and accepted by many colleges for credit. The College Board has been pushing to enroll more black and Hispanic students in AP classes and made some attempts recently to expand access for children from poor families.
Offering AP classes in all Baltimore high schools could help shrink the gaps between who gets a chance to earn college credit while still in high school and who doesn’t.
“It’s really a major first step for equity,” said Davis Dixon, a research associate at The Education Trust, which advocates for students of color and those from low-income families.
White students in Baltimore are 2.6 times more likely than black students to be enrolled in at least one AP class, according to ProPublica’s Miseducation database. About 80 percent of students enrolled in the city’s public schools are African American.
Education experts warn that just offering more AP classes won’t be enough to set students up on a path to success on university campuses or eliminate the opportunity gap that can start widening as soon as children enter school.
Dixon said school systems must focus on creating a culture of advanced learning and expecting kids to start preparing early for their eventual AP classes.
Roughly 1.24 million public high school graduates across the country — about 39 percent of the Class of 2018 — took at least one AP exam, according to the College Board.
Across Maryland last year, nearly half of high school graduates took at least one AP test, state data indicate.
In Baltimore, where high school enrollment is about 20,700, roughly 1,600 students took at least one AP exam in 2018.
Of those, roughly one-third passed the tests. Nationally, the pass rate was about 58 percent.
The Academy for College and Career Exploration in Hampden — where hardly any students passed the state standardized tests in math or English in 2018 — is among the group of high schools that offered no AP classes last year. Principal Nick D’Ambrosio said that by September, students will be able to take a government and an English course, and perhaps an AP art class, too.
The classes will be hard, but D’Ambrosio believes exposing students to rigorous coursework will better prepare them for college and teach them life lessons in perseverance, regardless of whether they ultimately score a 3 or higher on the AP exam.
“We know students will struggle at times, but if you have the right adults in place, the goal is that 100 percent of students will be successful,” D’Ambrosio said.
The district recently spent $80,000 for about 50 city educators, including three from ACCE, to get training at Goucher College on how to effectively run an AP class. Too often, Jutras says, well-intentioned teachers will dilute courses’ rigor because they think it will make it more accessible for students who are starting off below grade level. By his view, that just robs them of a chance to “take a college level class while still having a high school safety net.”
A Baltimore Sun investigation in 2013 revealed many Maryland students were earning an A or B in an AP class, but then failing the exam. Some researchers are concerned this dynamic can leave kids believing they’re ready for college, when their schools have in fact failed to prepare them.
There are already 17 ACCE students registered for Molly Carr’s fall AP Government course, Carr said. They’ve delved into the summer homework. They know that when they get back to school, they will face hours of additional independent studying to keep up with the class.
“There are students in every school who want the challenge that an AP class can bring, who are up to the challenge as well, but often miss out on it just because of the school they attend,” Carr said. The expansion of AP access “sends the message that a lot of teachers already know: We have students who are ready across the district.”