Maryland ranked No. 1 in the nation in the percentage of high school seniors taking and passing the rigorous Advanced Placement exams, squeaking by New York, which has held the top position for decades, according to a report released yesterday by the College Board.
The achievement comes years after Maryland strengthened the curriculum in middle and high schools to better prepare students for college. For instance, many students now take Algebra I in eighth grade so that they can take calculus by the time they graduate. The state also helped fund programs that encourage school districts to offer more AP courses, particularly to minority and low-income students.
"This is huge, because it's such a specific, national, high standard," said Maryland schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.
Gov. Martin O'Malley, who appeared at a news conference with Grasmick at the State House, called the ranking "remarkable" and said it was a testament to the large investment the state had made in education in recent years.
Of Maryland's Class of 2008, 23.4 percent of the students took and passed at least one or more of the exams, significantly above the nationwide average of 15 percent. New York came in second with 23.3 percent of students passing.
Maryland increased the number of students taking Advanced Placement at a faster pace than all but two states and has gotten an increasingly larger percentage of African-Americans to take the exams. Only four states have a higher percentage of blacks passing the test.
But the state still has significant work to do. The report notes that while Hispanics and whites are represented in AP classrooms in the same percentages as they are in the student population, blacks are not equally represented. Black students represent 18 percent of students in AP classrooms in Maryland, far less than the 34 percent in the general population of seniors.
Maryland also has a lower percentage of its low- income students taking AP classes compared to some other leading states. About 1 in 10 students sitting in AP classrooms qualify for a reduced-price school lunches, compared with nearly double that rate in New York.
Disparity remains in the state. Two Maryland high schools were recognized for having the highest percentage in the nation of African-American seniors passing the tests: Paint Branch in Montgomery County for the world history exam and Eleanor Roosevelt in Prince George's County for the chemistry exam. By contrast, Polytechnic Institute and City College had relatively lower pass rates.
A passing grade is 3 or better on a scale of 1 to 5. A student who scores a 5 would be expected to get an A in an introductory-level college course in that subject. Students who receive a 3 would be expected to earn between a C and a B-minus. Some colleges give credit in those cases, saving students tuition costs.
Montgomery County performed exceptionally well, with 61 percent of its graduating class taking an AP exam and 46 percent of the class passing.
In Baltimore County, 19.4 percent of last year's class passed - up 10 percentage points in the past decade. Superintendent Joe A. Hairston said the consistent upward trend is part of "an ongoing process." He added, "When you think in terms of the scope and scale of our school system and our population, we're very pleased with the performance of our young people at this point."
While Baltimore City and Baltimore County participation rates are not as high as those in some of Maryland's wealthy suburban counties, they compare favorably to districts in the rest of the nation, said Trevor Packer, head of the AP program for the College Board, which writes and scores the test. In the city, participation has increased rapidly in recent years as more AP classes are offered, but passing rates have not risen as much.
Baltimore County has set a goal of offering at least 12 AP classes in each high school. Franklin High School in Reisterstown has regularly added advanced courses to its offerings, looking at them as "the way to go for all of our students," said Kathleen H. Schmidt, the principal.
This year, Franklin has a new human geography class designed for 10th-graders, and an environmental science course is planned for the fall. The AP psychology class is so popular, it's the only course that the instructor teaches, Schmidt said.
"It's opened up opportunities for kids. It's certainly an emblem of pride, I think, for the school and for the staff," Schmidt said of the AP courses. "It's not an exclusive club any longer. . . . It's extremely important for the kids who can achieve, and their achievements are beyond the school."
Nearly 220 students took about 420 tests last year, Schmidt said, compared with 60 taking about 90 exams a decade ago. The school saw 100 percent pass rates in several subjects, including physics, economics and chemistry, Schmidt said.
Packer, of the College Board, said Grasmick set the goals for the state. "At the state level there has been leadership and directives that have fostered a sense of expectations in the local school districts." He said much of work has been been done at the local level by administrators who designed a curriculum that would give students the preparation early on.
Grasmick said that seven years ago she began a partnership with the College Board that includes a staff member at the State Education Department, paid jointly by the College Board and the state, who is responsible for helping schools establish and expand AP programs.
Grasmick also said Maryland has been successful in receiving federal grants that have allowed state schools to prepare middle school students for AP classes in high school. An additional $2 million grant, which will be targeted primarily to city schools, has just been received, she said.
The College Board does not prescribe a curriculum for the Advanced Placement courses, nor is there an AP textbook. Teachers develop their own lesson plans in the more than 30 courses that the College Board tests, from English language to calculus to Spanish to art. To pass the exams, students must have mastered a certain amount of the material. Increasingly, the AP exams are requiring students to answer questions with more depth and analysis, rather than simply showing they have mastered the facts. For the AP exam in art, students turn in a portfolio rather than take a written exam.
Getting a 3 or better on an AP exam is considered a predictor of how well students will do in college. A recent study showed that even among students in the same socioeconomic and racial groups, those who had taken and passed AP tests got better grades in college than those who did not. In addition, students who had taken AP classes were more likely to graduate from college in four years.
Baltimore Sun reporters Gadi Dechter and Arin Gencer contributed to this article.