Maryland may rank No. 1 in the nation for the percentage of its high school graduates who pass an Advanced Placement test, but behind that distinction is a wide disparity between counties and high schools.
Even among some of the best schools in the Baltimore region - and from one high school to the next within the same counties - students have widely different course offerings and results. For example, 46 percent of the graduates last spring at Broadneck High School in Annapolis had passed at least one AP test compared with less than half that percentage at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute. In Baltimore County, nearly 48 percent of the seniors at Towson High School had passed an Advanced Placement exam compared with less than 5 percent at New Town High School.
Anne Arundel's pass rate of about one in four surpassed Baltimore and Carroll counties, where about 22 percent passed. In Howard, nearly one in three passed. Baltimore City had the lowest pass rate of any district in the metropolitan area. Only 2.7 percent of the graduating class had passed one test. Harford County did not release results.
Montgomery County officials have boasted that without their students' stellar performance, the state would have ranked 10th in the nation. In Montgomery, 46 percent of last year's graduates had gotten a score of 3 or better on at least one AP exam - a countywide average that beat all but a few of the schools in the Baltimore region. The Baltimore Sun obtained scores from local systems to determine how individual schools and districts stack up.
Maryland has been urging districts to increase the number of Advanced Placement offerings as a way to raise standards and provide more rigorous courses to prepare students for college. The subject matter is taught at a college level, and receiving a score of 3 or better equates to a "C" or better at a university. The tests, administered by the College Board, cover a range of subjects, such as English, world history, calculus, statistics, music theory and French. Students who take an Advanced Placement class, even those who do not pass the exams, have a better chance of graduating from college, research has shown.
Principals in schools where they have begun trying to increase the number of AP classes said the key is to begin pushing students in ninth grade who are successful in standard classes into higher-level classes. If they do well, they are encouraged to try an Advanced Placement class. That approach is far different than in the past, when AP classes were offered only to a select few, said Broadneck Principal David G. Smith.
A decade ago, Smith said, schools often discouraged students from taking the most rigorous courses. "It was a shift from throwing up hurdles and barriers to encouraging more and more kids to take them. That is the bottom line on what has driven this growth."
Broadneck senior Thea Parker never saw herself as a serious student. In ninth grade, she said, "I wasn't really pushing myself. ... I was thinking about the minimum."
She said she was often argumentative until after getting into a program called AVID, which attempts to place underachieving students or those from low-income families on a college track. There, she was exposed to the idea of going to college and saw more possibilities in her future. Now, she said, "I have a brand new attitude."
As a junior, she took some honors classes, and then a teacher encouraged her to try AP human geography as a senior. At first, she said, she was nervous about the amount of work, but she got used to it and got an "A" in her first quarter and a "B" in the second.
"I love my course," she said. She is applying to four-year colleges and hopes to be the first in her family to graduate from college.
Baltimore had particularly poor pass rates even among its top achieving schools. Low rates might be expected at City College, which offers an alternative program called the International Baccalaureate Program, or at the School for the Arts. But Poly and Western, both of which have entrance requirements, had much lower rates than the best performing suburban schools.
Recently, Baltimore has focused its attention on adding AP classes in its high schools and ensuring that teachers are trained. "I believe in the next few years, we will see more students taking the AP and passing," said Bianca Pilewski, director of guidance in the city.
The city must also overcome a more serious hurdle: Many of its students are not taking difficult classes in middle school that prepare them to take more advanced science and math classes. For a student to take AP calculus in senior year or advanced science classes, they must have Algebra I before ninth grade. Yet, few city students take algebra in middle school.
Baltimore schools chief Andres Alonso said he doesn't know why Poly's pass rate, 21.7 percent, is relatively low. "It is obviously something we will be taking a look at," he said.
Baltimore County has gone from a pass rate among seniors of 12 percent in 2000 to 22.1 percent by 2008. Despite a goal of having every high school offer 12 AP courses, some schools offer only 10 while others offer 28.
Lynda Whitlock, principal of Lansdowne High School, said the staff had to overcome an initial reluctance among the student body. Teachers also must give instruction in study habits and techniques. Last year, she said, the school decided it would like to offer an AP biology class and began by getting a group of students to take a physiology course that would prepare them. Many have signed up to take the biology class next year.
She said students who would not have been considered for the courses have taken them and done well.
"As you get more students involved in the program, peer pressure begins to help," she said. "It has become fashionable to take the more rigorous classes."