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An impressive 21 percent of Maryland's high school graduates last year scored high enough on at least one Advanced Placement test to earn college credit, according to a national report released by the College Board this week. Only New York's graduating seniors, nearly 23 percent of whom earned similar credits, did better. But Maryland's 7-point increase in the percentage of students who passed since 2000 was the highest in the nation. It's an accomplishment worth celebrating because the state has also significantly increased the number of minorities taking these tougher classes.

AP courses have taken on new importance as colleges increasingly use them to help determine the rigorousness of an applicant's high school studies. The classes - which are offered in more than 60 percent of the nation's high schools - cover 35 subject areas, such as calculus, English literature and studio art. Successful completion of the course and an exam can earn students early college credits and admission to more-selective universities. President Bush wants to increase the number of teachers who are trained to teach AP math and science courses as part of a larger initiative to sharpen America's competitive edge.

Within Maryland, Montgomery County has long been a leader in offering AP courses, and now has more than 30. But the rest of the state is catching up. Each school district offers at least seven AP courses; Baltimore and its surrounding counties each offer at least 16 AP courses, and seven other districts offer at least 26 subjects. Since 2002, the state has nearly doubled participation in these courses by black and Hispanic students by providing funds to train more AP teachers, helping promising low-income middle school students prepare for high school AP classes and offering subsidies to help students pay exam fees. The challenge is to continue expanding access while improving students' rate of success.

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