By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 20, 2006
Montgomery County public schools this year passed a milestone in college preparation: Half of the 9,737 black high school students are enrolled in honors or Advanced Placement courses.
Five years ago, barely one-third of African Americans participated in such classes, despite the county's reputation as a national leader in college prep. Now, a black student in Montgomery is more likely to take an AP test than a white student elsewhere in the nation.
Josephine Kalema, 17, is one of those students. She is Wheaton High School's senior class president, captain of the pom squad and a newly minted assistant manager at Dunkin' Donuts. With some of her Wheaton High classmates, Josephine has helped the school system move toward parity for its black students.
Kalema took all the honors courses available to her in the ninth grade, then progressed into AP. As a senior, she is taking AP geography, calculus and English literature. She partly credits her counselor, Scott Woo, with her advancement.
"It's always been Mr. Woo saying, 'I think you can take this class,' " she said.
The county's achievement is striking because the national surge in Advanced Placement testing has largely left black students behind.
AP testing doubled nationwide in five years -- from 1.1 million exams taken in 2001 to 2.3 million this past spring. But black students remain underrepresented in AP classes.
Last spring, only 4 percent of black students in Virginia high schools and 5 percent in Maryland sat for Advanced Placement exams, about one-third the rate for all students. In the majority-black D.C. system, about 5 percent of black high school students took AP tests.
AP tests, and the courses that precede them, are designed to replicate the college experience. Students who earn scores of three or higher on the five-point scale of AP typically can qualify for college credit. Participation in either AP or its counterpart, International Baccalaureate, is now more or less expected by admissions officers at some competitive colleges, who want applicants who take the most rigorous courses high schools offer.
The College Board, which administers the AP program, reported last winter that although AP participation had increased everywhere, just two states with small black populations, Hawaii and South Dakota, had eliminated the participation gap between blacks and whites.
Hispanic students, by contrast, had closed the gap with non-Hispanic whites in 11 states, including Maryland, and in the District.
The AP gap persists between blacks and whites in Montgomery schools, despite a countywide effort to identify and recruit students of all races with potential for college-level study. But a new report on AP and honors study suggests blacks are starting to close the gap. And that is trickier than it sounds, because students across the board are moving up.
In 2001, whites were twice as likely as blacks to be enrolled in AP or honors study, with 70 percent of whites and 35 percent of blacks taking at least one such course. Five years later, the gap has shrunk in both absolute and relative terms, with 82 percent of whites and 51 percent of blacks enrolled.
In previous decades, AP was mostly the province of a small coterie identified by their teachers as capable of college-level work. The program's elitism "was a self-fulfilling prophecy," said Christopher Berry, an assistant principal at Blake High School in Silver Spring. Students couldn't enroll in AP or honors-level courses without demonstrating they were capable of the work. "And it was difficult for kids who were not in honors courses to demonstrate that they could do it."
The success of urban schoolteacher Jaime Escalante with a group of minority AP students in East Los Angeles in the 1980s convinced public educators that motivation and hard work might be just as important as standardized test scores in predicting AP success. Over the past few years, that philosophy has become pervasive in the Washington region.
Principals and teachers in Montgomery high schools began looking for reasons to include students in AP courses, rather than reasons to keep them out. The process evolved into a science: All students now take the PSAT, or Preliminary SAT, a strong predictor of AP potential, in the ninth grade. Principals get spreadsheets that allow them to sort students by PSAT score and grade-point average to identify those capable of AP study not enrolled in an AP course.
Nine percent of black students in Montgomery high schools, and 23 percent of all students, took at least one AP exam in spring 2005; final 2006 figures are not available.
Fairfax County, Virginia's largest school system and an AP powerhouse, has had similar success: 10 percent of blacks attending the county's high schools, and one-quarter of all students, took AP tests this spring.
AP participation will never approach 100 percent because AP study is concentrated in the upper grades and excludes some -- though not all -- students taking IB courses. Some Fairfax schools offer IB instead of AP.
Kalema was being groomed for AP while still in middle school. She took Algebra I, a high school course, in the eighth grade; the school system has dramatically expanded advanced math study in elementary and middle schools as a pipeline to future AP and IB study.
Of the 350 black students at Wheaton High, 210, or 60 percent, took at least one honors or AP course last year, double the participation rate of five years ago, according to the new school system report. Those classes, like the school itself, are about one-quarter black.
Montgomery teachers have learned that drawing minority students to AP involves more than simply inviting them to enroll. Students want to study with their friends, in classrooms as diverse as the school itself.
"If you don't know anyone who's taking an honors or an AP class, there's no reason why you'd do it yourself," said Kellie Clark, 17, a senior at Blake High, a school where more than half the 650 black students take honors or AP courses.
Clark, like Kalema, has a full schedule: student government, various clubs and a part-time job at American Eagle Outfitters. She took three AP courses as a junior but scaled back to one as a senior to ease the homework load and reclaim her social life.
"I wanted to make sure that I enjoyed high school while I was still here," she said.
Even after recruiting large numbers of black students into advanced courses, Montgomery remains far from true racial equity. Many black students dabble in AP. Few go on to take a full load of courses and tests.
Of the Montgomery students who take AP tests, 79 percent earn passing scores of 3 or higher -- a remarkably high rate, considering that participation has effectively doubled in five years. The passing rate for black students is 57 percent, lowest among all racial groups. Of the 345 Montgomery students who took five or more AP exams in spring 2005, just eight were black.
Recruiting black males into AP study, however, has proved difficult. Nearly twice as many black females as males took AP tests in 2005, an extreme example of the gender gap that pervades the program.
Black males at Wheaton High offer a variety of theories to explain it: Girls are more industrious, or more willing to take academic risks, or more confident that they will pass the test.
Issa Braithwaite, a Wheaton senior, has kept up with two AP courses this year. He said it's all about the effort.
"You're as successful as you want to be," he said. "Almost any kid can do the work, if you put in the time that you have to put into it."