County Stays Strong in AP Scores Despite Increased Participation

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 18, 2008

Montgomery County high schools remain among the nation's elite in college-level Advanced Placement testing, even after dramatically expanding the number of disadvantaged students involved in the program, according to a review of score reports over several years.

The number of students taking AP exams nearly tripled between 2000 and 2008, from 4,626 to 13,568, according to annual reports published by the school system. School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast released 2008 data last week during a visit to Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School.

The number of disadvantaged students taking AP tests has increased at a greater rate, from 160 students in the 1999-2000 academic year to 1,112 in 2007-08. Disadvantaged students, or those who qualify for federally subsidized meals because of low family income, make up 8 percent of AP test-takers in the county, up from 3 percent at the start of the decade.

"Race should not be a predictor," Weast said, addressing students and staff at Bethesda-Chevy Chase. "Socioeconomics should not be a predictor. And the teachers of Montgomery County are proving that."

The larger presence of low-income students in the college-level testing program reflects two factors, school officials said: increased poverty in the community and the recruitment of disadvantaged students into advanced study. Under Weast, the school system has abandoned barriers to AP study that kept the program small in previous decades, reflecting an expansive philosophy toward college-level testing across the region. AP, International Baccalaureate and other programs expose high school students to college-level work. Students who score well on the end-of-course tests can qualify for college credit.

By several measures, Montgomery's high schools are among the most successful in the nation at AP study. Every county high school with a graduating class last spring earned a spot on the Challenge Index, a measure of participation in college-level testing created by Washington Post staff writer Jay Mathews. That means every county high school, including high-poverty Albert Einstein and Wheaton, ranked among the top 5 to 10 percent of high schools nationwide for AP and IB testing.

Six county high schools ranked among the top 100 on the index, which measures college-level tests taken per graduating senior: Richard Montgomery (32), Wootton (60), Bethesda-Chevy Chase (64), Walt Whitman (69), Walter Johnson (76) and Winston Churchill (98). No school system had more schools in the top echelon, Montgomery officials said. Three Montgomery schools placed on a competing list of 100 top schools published recently by U.S. News & World Report, based partly on AP performance, and again the county was unsurpassed.

Rapid expansion of AP testing has brought some decline in pass rates, a correlation common in AP and SAT testing. The percentage of county AP tests earning a score of 3, the minimum to earn college credit, or higher on the 5-point scale has dropped from about 80 percent to the low 70s in the past decade. Just more than half of disadvantaged students who took AP tests this year passed, compared with 57 percent five years ago.

But the yield of passed tests has grown tremendously. The number of successful AP tests taken countywide reached 18,306 this year, up from 14,508 in 2004.

Weast has drawn attention to the participation of poor and minority students in AP study by fostering what he terms a healthy competition among school systems, particularly toward the achievement of African American students.

African Americans in Montgomery high schools produced 1,152 passing AP tests this year, up from 859 in 2006 and 725 in 2004. A Washington Post analysis two years ago found that only one school system, the million-student New York public school system, generated more passing AP tests from black students than Montgomery, a system of 139,000 students.

African American students passed 1,313 AP tests in New York schools this year, a city schools spokesman said.

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