AP Gains Highlight Evolving Challenges

By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 8, 2006

Across the Washington region, more black and Hispanic students are participating in highly touted Advanced Placement courses. Now, educators say they have to make certain that those students are not only taking the classes but are succeeding in them.

A survey of area school systems bolsters many of the trends highlighted in the College Board's Advanced Placement Report to the Nation released yesterday -- for example, educators are expanding opportunities for students to take the rigorous AP courses, which allow students to earn college credit in high school. But school officials say greater student numbers and diversity mean greater challenges.

"Now it's about, once you've opened those doors, how do you handle that?" said Ayeola Boothe-Kinlaw, director of the equity access initiative for the AP program. "How do you help students handle that rigor?"

For many years, AP held barriers for minority students, said George P. Arlotto, principal of Wheaton High School in Montgomery County and a former AP teacher. "A lot of schools throughout the country created prerequisites to get into AP classes. Today, we've taken those barriers down. We tell the students, 'If you have the desire, then we want you in the class.' "

Now, more than 60 percent of the nation's high schools participate in the AP program. According to the College Board, one in three students takes an AP course in high school.

In Montgomery, Maryland's largest school system, the number of students taking AP exams almost doubled between 2000 and 2005. In Fairfax County, the number grew 32.2 percent, but the percentage of black and Hispanic students taking the tests in Fairfax remained steady at about 9 percent over the five-year period.

At Wheaton, where most students are ethnic minorities, the number of students taking the AP exams has grown almost sixfold -- from 46 in 2001 to 247 in 2005. Arlotto said that's partly because educators are making more of an effort to encourage students to take the difficult coursework.

But Wheaton is a prime example of the next phase in AP. Although more students are enrolling, not all are achieving passing scores on the AP exams. In 2005, only 37.4 percent of the students who took an exam scored a 3 -- the minimum passing score -- or better, compared with 67.5 percent in 2001.

The campus is taking steps to offer help with studying and organizational skills. The school's AP biology teacher meets one-on-one with students on Saturdays, and counselors have organized brown-bag luncheons to help students learn how to form study groups, said Aggie Alvez, director of communications for Montgomery schools.

Arlotto said passing the exam is a goal the school will push for, but he said that much of the focus has been on improving access to the program. Even if students aren't necessarily earning college credit, they are being exposed to a tougher curriculum that many think helps improve their study skills, Arlotto said.

Still, students need to move toward passing the test, educators say. At Potomac High School in Prince George's County, none of the 60 students who took AP exams in 2005 received a passing score.

In Howard County, the number of black students taking an AP test has almost tripled, from 37 in 2000 to 105 in 2005. About 19 percent of the students in Howard take at least one AP exam. But achievement trends are mixed: More black students posted scores of 3 or better, but the percentage of Hispanic students scoring 3 or better declined from 81 percent in 2003 to 79 percent in 2005. In Prince George's, the percentage of black students scoring 3 or higher on the exams increased in 2005 but declined slightly for white students.

In Arlington County, the number of Hispanic students taking the tests more than doubled from 2001 to 2005, from 101 to 267. Even more significant: The percentage of Hispanic students earning a 3 or better increased from 8.6 percent to 17.6 percent. At Wakefield High School, nearly half of the Hispanic students who took the exam scored a 3 or better.

Arlington County Superintendent Robert G. Smith said the system has worked closely with students and families to expose them to the importance of taking the high-level courses. Educators at Wakefield launched a summer bridge program to help prepare black and Hispanic students for AP coursework and offer an in-school support program in which students meet during their lunch hour.

"There is no reason to believe that enrollment in rigorous classes should vary by ethnicity,'' Smith said. "We also realize that students can do more than they've done in the past. Both AP and International Baccalaureate provide ways in which students can stretch a bit.''

Montgomery Superintendent Jerry D. Weast said that school system has been pushing access to AP programs earlier. "The theory that I'm using is that it forces the high schools, middle schools and elementary schools to change their rigor.''

Weast said the school system has focused on eliminating barriers that may have kept students who had the desire to take the advanced courses but were denied the opportunity.

"We have to educate not only at a higher level but more kids at a higher level,'' Weast said. "The old sorting measure we used to use no longer works. Since we have a lot of diversity in the county, we can't just leave groups behind. It makes sense to me that we're trying to blaze a pathway. It's not a road yet, but a fairly clear pathway.''

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