Celebrating what schools are doing right

Correction: An earlier version of this column misstated last year’s national average for the share of graduating seniors who passed at least one Advanced Placement test during high school. The average was 18.1 percent, not 25.6 percent. This version has been corrected.

Jay Mathews
Columnist February 8, 2012

My topic today is something that people in the Washington area rarely acknowledge. The lawyers, educators, government officials, consultants, journalists and other analytical types so numerous here prefer to fix what’s wrong — how about those Redskins? — rather than celebrate what’s right.

Still, they might examine the annual report on Advanced Placement released Wednesday by the College Board and appreciate that this area leads the nation in public school achievement.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years. View Archive

There are many ways to measure school success. The College Board numbers are impressive because they show the academic level reached by our students at the end of the entire kindergarten-through-12th-grade process. Maryland ranked first in the nation and Virginia third in the percentage of graduating seniors in 2011 who scored a passing grade on an AP test during high school.

The numbers would look even better if they included International Baccalaureate and Advanced International Certificate of Education test results. Like AP, those programs give high school students courses and exams similar to what they would get in their first year of college. The AP, IB and AICE exams are much longer than high school course finals. They are heavy with essay questions. They are written and scored by outside experts insulated from appeals to give Tommy a good grade so he can graduate although he devoted last semester to video games.

The AP data also show how much most of our schools have improved in just a decade. In Maryland, 27.9 percent of seniors graduating in 2011 had a passing score on an AP test, double the 2001 rate of 14.8 percent. Virginia’s percentage went from 16.5 in 2001 to 25.6 in 2011. The national average in that period went from 10.8 to 18.1 percent.

That isn’t good enough, of course. Since about 70 percent of seniors go on to college, the report shows that most of them do so without a passing AP score. Studies have shown that students who do well on AP do better in college than those who don’t take AP. Yet less than half of graduating seniors in Maryland or Virginia are steered into courses and tests like AP, IB or AICE that give them a useful taste of what college will be like.

Some critics say that too many unready students are pushed into AP courses here. The report’s data suggest the opposite. One heartbreaking graph looks just at students whose standardized test scores indicate a readiness for a college-level challenge in certain subjects. The report shows that most of them were not given a chance to take AP courses in those subjects.

Nearly 80 percent of African Americans and 70 percent of Hispanics were either left out of an AP subject for which they had potential or attended a school that did not offer the course. Among whites, 62 percent were left out and among Asians, 42 percent.

That explains in part why D.C. schools do so poorly. Nationally, the number of graduates succeeding on AP has grown, from 277,507 with passing scores in 2001 to 540,619 in 2011. The number of successful graduates in the District also has risen in those 10 years, from 190 to 276. But only 6.6 percent of graduating D.C. public school seniors in 2011 passed an AP test. Among states, those that ranked lowest on that measure were Louisiana (5.6 percent) and Mississippi (4.5 percent).

Joining Maryland and Virginia at the top of the list are states that have relatively high incomes, which correlates with test scores, but focus on getting students into AP, IB and AICE no matter how much money their parents make. New York is second nationally, Massachusetts fourth and Connecticut fifth.

Many states have improved on this measure. Still, twice as many kids are ready for AP than the number of high-schoolers who actually get to take the courses. Does that make sense?

For previous columns by Jay Mathews, go to postlocal.com.

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