For the fourth year in a row, Maryland ranked No. 1 in the nation in the percentage of its graduating seniors who successfully passed the rigorous Advanced Placement exams, leaping further ahead of other top states.
Twenty-nine percent of last year's graduating seniors in Maryland had passed one AP test by the time they walked across the stage last spring, double the percentage of a decade ago and more than one percentage point higher than 2010. The national average was 18 percent.
Despite the success, many African-American students in the state, as in the nation, do not have access to AP exams, and those who do are still failing in higher numbers than their better-prepared peers.
Maryland's success rates are largely the result of high-level teaching that starts long before high school, according to Trevor Packer, vice president of Advanced Placement for the College Board.
Some districts, including Howard and Montgomery counties, have begun teaching an advanced curriculum to students in early middle school so they are prepared for AP by high school, Packer said. But in other areas of the state, such as some counties on the Eastern Shore, the AP success rate is low.
"The performance in Maryland is not spread evenly through districts," he said.
Maryland, like other states, has been unable to provide the same access to AP tests for poor and black students. Only 8 percent of African-American graduates in Maryland had passed an AP test, compared to 35 percent of white students. Among those black students who did take the test, 28 percent were able to pass, while 70 percent of white students passed at least one test.
Those results mirrored the nation, and the College Board, in releasing the data Wednesday, said they believed about 79 percent of black students who could succeed in AP are not being offered the classes.
Interim state school Superintendent Bernard Sadusky said he is particularly concerned that some rural school districts, including Dorchester and Wicomico counties, do not have enough money to offer Advanced Placement classes to students. "Those students need to have the equal opportunity," he said.
Access to classes is not the only issue, however. In Baltimore City, where AP classes are now offered in the majority of high schools, the pass rates are poor in all but a few of the city's best high schools.
For instance, at Northwestern High School, 158 students took exams, but only four exams received a passing grade. At Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, 56 students took exams and one passed. Even at Western High, a prestigious all-girls school, the pass rate was low and only 13 percent of graduating seniors had a successful AP experience.
Advanced Placement courses, given in more than 25 subjects such as calculus, music theory and world history, are designed to be taught at a college level. Exam scores range from 1 to 5, with 3 considered passing, or the equivalent of a C or higher on a college-level class. Some colleges accept passing grades as credit.
Packer of Advanced Placement said he worries that exceptionally low pass rates sometimes show that school leaders are "putting the cart before the horse and rushing kids into AP."
In some cases, however, he believes that if teachers are strategic, AP can be used to increase achievement in the school as a whole.
City schools chief academic officer Sonja B. Santelises said the district has increased the number of classes offered. "One of the things I am proud about is that the way our high schools have embraced the idea that making AP more available to every student in every school is part of our goal," she said.
The district is also trying to revamp its honors language arts program so that students are better prepared for high-level classes in high school.
Even when teaching students who are prepared, the amount of work for an AP teacher can be daunting, according to Lisa Fridman, a former AP chemistry teacher at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute. About two-thirds of her students scored a 4 or 5 on the test during the two years she was a part-time teacher, she said, but it was only because of the extra hours.
"The only way I got the results I got was that I worked a ridiculous amount," she said, adding that she doesn't know how teachers who teach three or four courses handle the load.
Schools in other districts have done exceptionally well. Of those in the Baltimore region, River Hill High School in Howard County and the Carver Center for the Arts in Baltimore County both had 59 percent of graduates who had passed at least one AP test.
Baltimore County had the largest number of high schools with more than half of graduating seniors passing an AP test. Besides Carver, Towson, Eastern Technology, Hereford and Dulaney high schools all had 50 percent of graduates having passed an AP test. In Howard, Centennial and River Hill met that standard, and in Anne Arundel, Severna Park excelled with 51 percent of graduates having a successful AP experience.
School districts have "done a good job of understanding these are gateway courses for students who see college ... in their future. They made the commitment to offer the courses and to get their [teachers] trained," said Sadusky.
After Maryland, the top states for AP graduating seniors were New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts.