School Ambitions Rise With Results

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Montgomery County school system reached a milestone a few years ago, when half the students in the Class of 2004 took one or more Advanced Placement exams. Now the district has a more ambitious goal within reach: half of all graduating students passing an AP test.

The Class of 2007 had a record performance in AP, a program that has been widely embraced as the gold standard for rigorous high school course work. Sixty percent of the class took at least one AP exam. Forty-six percent of graduates passed at least one exam with a score of 3 or higher on the five-point AP scale.

AP courses, published by the College Board, confront high school students with college-level work. Passing the corresponding test signifies that a student has grasped the material; a passing score often yields advanced standing in college. AP efforts have expanded in the region and throughout the nation in recent years, driven by broad consensus that as many students as possible should be exposed to rigorous courses.

Montgomery has led this movement in Maryland. With the 2007 class, the county produced more than one-third of the passing AP tests in the state. The share of students in Maryland as a whole who passed one or more AP tests was 22 percent. About 15 percent of graduates nationwide passed an AP test, one-third the rate in Montgomery County.

Superintendent Jerry D. Weast focused on the record of black students in Montgomery. The share of black students taking one or more AP tests tripled from 12 percent in the Class of 2000 to 34 percent in the Class of 2007. The share who passed at least one test doubled in that time, to 18 percent.

"Particularly noteworthy," Weast wrote in a memo to the Board of Education, "is that African American males [in Montgomery County public schools] took AP exams at a higher rate than the national average for all students and surpassed the national average for performance for all students as well."

In May 2007, the county reached a plateau of 1,000 AP tests passed by black students, a total surpassed by only one other public school district, New York City's.

The county has greatly increased minority participation in AP by switching from a gatekeeper system that steered all but an elite group of achieving students away from the courses. Today, high school principals use spreadsheets to sort students by preliminary SAT scores and grade-point averages and then to identify and recruit anyone capable of AP study but not yet enrolled.

At individual Montgomery high schools, the share of students in the 2007 class taking AP tests ranged from a low of 34 percent at Seneca Valley High School in Germantown to a high of 84 percent at Wootton High School in Rockville. Progress is consistent across the two dozen county high schools and is striking at schools that serve middle-class or working-class communities. Seven schools -- Damascus, Einstein, Gaithersburg, Northwest, Poolesville, Watkins Mill and Wheaton -- have recorded a doubling in their share of students tested since 2000.

"We expect all students to sit for the exams," said Deena Levine, principal of Poolesville High, in an e-mail. "We highly promote the exams to our school community. We offer practice sessions so that students have an understanding of the exam. We offer financial assistance if needed. And we have celebration pizza parties after the tests."

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