More taking the AP tests

The Baltimore Sun

Significantly more Anne Arundel County high school students are taking Advanced Placement tests, but a smaller proportion of them are scoring high enough on the rigorous exams to earn college credit, according to numbers released by the school system.

The number of students who took AP tests in the spring jumped 22 percent, but the percentage scoring 3 or higher on the 5-point scale fell at 11 of the 12 high schools.

The data released last week reflect the school system's effort to boost the number of college-level courses offered and the enrollment in them, along with critics' concerns that unprepared students are forcing teachers to water down the material.

Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell said that whether or not students earn high scores on the AP tests, the increased participation is laying the groundwork for success in college.

"Data shows that students who take the exams, even if they score a 1 or a 2, are more successful in college than those students who don't take the exams or who don't take AP courses at all," Maxwell said Friday in a statement. "I am very, very encouraged by the increases we've seen."

The number of students taking AP courses and tests has increasingly become a measure of high school quality and rigor and is part of a mathematical formula used in national indices to rank high schools.

Some high schools have beefed up their AP offerings to 30 courses, said Barbara Zelley, the system's coordinator of gifted, talented and advanced programs.

Across the system, the number of test-takers in the 2006-2007 school year rose by 719, to 3,952. The biggest increase was at North County High, where 205 students took the test, compared with 135 last year.

"Everything that we know about the global economy and world markets and what students need to know and be able to do in the 21st century requires us to equip them with better math, science and technology," Zelley said. "It's all about rigor."

With a national military base realignment process expected to bring thousands of high-tech jobs to the area, school officials have encouraged greater enrollment in higher-level math and science courses. The system also has coaxed more students to take the test by setting aside $250,000 to help families afford the exams, which cost $83 apiece. With each push, officials mention data showing that those who take AP courses and tests are more likely to finish college in four years than those who don't.

"I think part of [the system's] goal is to force kids to do more work, get more actively involved in their own education, take risks they might not have taken," said Tim Menutti, president of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County.

Among students, AP tests are popular because the students can earn college credits and speed up their freshman year. Yet the most recent data show that a smaller percentage of Anne Arundel students are scoring high enough to do so. The tests are graded on a 1-to-5 scale, with a score of 3 or higher allowing students to earn college credit.

At Chesapeake High School, 58 percent of the students scored 3 or higher, compared with 75 percent in the previous school year.

At Severna Park High, 66 percent of students scored 3 or higher, compared with 78 percent the year before.

The lower scores have caused concern among parents and other critics who say the system's push for AP courses and test-taking has filled the classes with students who aren't prepared to do college-level work.

In the spring, top-ranked students at Severna Park High School said the pressure to take AP tests and courses even when they didn't feel ready contributed to a "culture of cheating" at the acclaimed school. The school was placed on probation this year after three students cheated on an AP U.S. history test May 11.

"If you're even slightly above average and motivated, you don't have any real option other than to go into an AP class, where you're shoved in with students who are not prepared, not capable of following through on the demands of an AP class," said Anne E. Levin Garrison, a South River High parent and a freelance writer and editor on education issues. "It completely defuses the intent, changes the meaning of quote-unquote 'advanced placement' when every type of student is allowed in that class."

Garrison has two daughters, one who graduated from South River in May and another who is a junior at the school. Her elder daughter had a senior year packed with AP courses and high marks on AP tests that would have allowed her to opt out of her freshman year in college, Garrison said.

"But to her credit, she's taking those courses again because she just doesn't feel like she got the foundation she needed, the depth that college-level courses offer," Garrison said.

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