Md. Leads U.S. in Passing Rates on AP Exams

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 5, 2009

For the first time, Maryland ranks top in the nation for the share of high school graduates who passed at least one Advanced Placement test.

The College Board reported yesterday that 23.4 percent of Maryland students in the Class of 2008 earned passing scores on one or more AP exams, which cover material comparable to what is taught in a first-year college course. The state edged New York, the home base of the nonprofit test publisher, to post the highest such rate in the AP program. Virginia was third, with 21.3 percent of graduating students having passed an AP test.

A score of 3 or higher on a five-point scale is considered passing and can yield college credit and advanced standing for matriculating college students.

Participation in AP has exploded this decade. Educators have embraced it as a sort of national curriculum for high school students who are ready for college study. Northeastern states, home to many elite universities, have led the trend. Schools in the Washington area have also been spurred by the Challenge Index, an annual report created by The Washington Post's Jay Mathews that measures high school rigor on the basis of participation in AP and other college-level programs.

Six states, including Maryland and Virginia, had at least one-fifth of graduates pass an AP test in high school: New York (23.3 percent), Connecticut (21 percent), Massachusetts (20.8 percent) and California (20.2 percent). The nationwide rate for the Class of 2008 was 15.2 percent. In the District, the rate was 6.9 percent. All figures represent only public schools.

About 10 percent of graduates nationwide who took one or more AP tests never attained a passing score. The same was true for about 13 percent of 2008 graduates in Virginia, 14 percent in Maryland and 19 percent in the District.

Virginia and Maryland have ascended in the AP program, with their largest systems leading the way. In Montgomery County, 46.4 percent of last year's graduates passed one or more AP tests, twice the state average and three times the national average. Fairfax County did not release such figures, but the system ranked just above Montgomery in the latest edition of the Challenge Index.

Five years ago, according to the College Board, Maryland was third in the nation for the share of students passing AP tests, behind New York and Utah. Virginia ranked sixth.

"There is huge effort being put forth across the state," said Nancy S. Grasmick, Maryland's superintendent of schools. She said that 13 of the state's 24 systems have 30 percent or more of their students participating in AP. "It's places like Worcester County, St. Mary's County, Calvert County, Charles County, Washington County. These are counties that no one ever thought about."

A few Washington area school systems released tabulations yesterday of students who had passed an AP test: 45 percent in St. Mary's, 46 percent in Anne Arundel County, 32 percent in Alexandria, 31 percent in Frederick County, Md., and 18 percent in Manassas. Others said they hadn't completed the calculations.

Trevor Packer, executive director of the AP program, said that Maryland had reached the top ranking through "a commitment at the state level, by policy makers, to insist that AP is part of their secondary-school agenda." The state has an employee, her salary paid partly by the College Board, whose job is to travel to all of the school systems to train teachers and recruit underrepresented students into AP study.

Schools in Maryland and Virginia have increased their AP participation by abandoning a "gatekeeper" mentality that created limited access for a small cadre of top students and by recruiting minority students.

Paint Branch High School in Burtonsville also earned a distinction from the College Board yesterday: No other high school in the United States had as many black students pass the AP world history exam. Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Prince George's County reaped a similar honor. It had the largest number of black students scoring 3 or higher on the AP chemistry test.

Garland Christopher, 17, an African American junior at Paint Branch, is taking four AP courses this year after taking one last year. The real preparation, he said, came in middle school, when he was persuaded to enroll in the ninth-grade Algebra I course as a seventh-grader. He took a steady dose of honors and accelerated courses before cracking an AP text.

"It gives you a taste of the level of work that you're going to face later," he said.

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