Alarmed by Baltimore's poor showing, a group of city high school principals was called together last year to find ways of increasing the number of students taking the advanced placement exams for college credit.
The effort proved successful -- but only at one high school.
According to a report on the 1990-1991 school year compiled by the Abell Foundation, the number of city high school students taking the advanced placement exams -- a measure of a school system's ability to produce top students -- almost doubled. But virtually all of that improvement was due to a dramatic increase at Baltimore City College.
Only three of the city's 16 other high schools had students take the exam, and of those only one -- Western -- showed a slight increase. The other two -- Poly and the School for the Arts -- showed a decrease over the previous year.
City school officials said they were not discouraged by the low numbers.
"We should not be alarmed because other schools did not improve," said Gary L. Thrift, the city's director of high schools. "It simply represents where their priorities are at this time. They have staffing concerns and they feel that more preparation needs to take place in the lower grades."
Mr. Thrift said he hopes that other schools will be motivated to replicate the advanced placement program at City College.
The Abell report shows that the city still lags far behind other comparable urban centers and Baltimore County.
The advanced placement tests are standardized tests by the Education Testing Service -- which also administers the SAT -- that are given annually to high school seniors. The tests, which give students the opportunity to earn college credit for advanced knowledge, are the only national standard by which schools can measure their success in producing top students.
In Baltimore, the Abell Foundation report found, the number of exams taken in 1991 rose to 140, up from 79 in 1990. But the report said that 110 of the tests were taken by students at City, a dramatic increase from the 19 AP exams taken at the school in 1990.
Baltimore County schools showed a solid increase in participation, from 514 tests taken in 1990 to 592 taken in 1991.
In Washington, where the public schools are burdened by crises equally as troubling as Baltimore's and student population is only slightly larger, the number of AP exams taken increased from 618 in 1990 to 706 in 1991.
Students usually prepare for the exams by taking special AP courses. But those special courses are not widely offered in Baltimore because many schools cannot afford the special teacher training or books required to implement the curriculum.
The incorporation of AP curriculums into schools can burden the staff and make class scheduling difficult, said Mr. Thrift. For example, he said, the advanced curriculum allows for a maximum class of 20 students, while most city high school classes have almost twice that number.
City College's advanced placement programs were paid for largely by the Abell Foundation. City offers AP courses in English and American and European history.
"We really worked hard," said Joseph Antenson, principal at City College. "We sent a group of teachers to workshops where they could learn the curriculum for advanced placement courses, because usually it's much different than regular curriculum. And then we made an effort to explain the courses and their advantages to the students."
Albert W. Strickland III, director of Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, said his staff has intensified its effort to increase participation in advanced placement courses. The school plans to offer advanced courses in calculus, biology, chemistry, physics, English and history.
Last year, only three advanced placement tests were taken at Poly.
"There just wasn't a lot of interest in AP courses," said Mr. Strickland. "It just wasn't well understood."
Since there is no national curriculum, educators say the advanced placement exams allow local school systems to gauge the success of their programs and students at a national level. Passing an AP exam -- by scoring at least 3 on a scale of 1 to 5 -- can earn a student college credits.
"With the rising cost of college, it is a great advantage for a student to start college with 12 to 15 credits. That's a lot of money saved," said Mr. Strickland.