Maria Flores was not a strong writer, and she knew that rhetorical essay assignments and analyzing complex texts would be a huge challenge.
That’s why the 17-year-old signed up to take her first Advanced Placement English course at Cardozo Education Campus last year. The D.C. high school student became one of a rapidly rising number in city public schools to take the college-level courses as a way of pushing themselves in a way many had never before thought possible.
“I am not the best writer, but I improved from where I was at the beginning of the year,” said Flores, who is now a senior.
She is one of 3,000 students in D.C. Public Schools who took an AP exam last school year, representing an increase of 73 percent since 2010. The number of students passing the exam also is growing, a trend not common in many school districts despite increased enrollment in AP courses; rising participation usually comes with declines in overall performance.
The school system’s 35 percent passage rate is still well below the national average of 60 percent. But school officials say that while passing the test and receiving college credit is the ultimate goal, exposing students to more rigorous courses pays off in many other ways.
Flores, for example, did not pass her AP English exam, but she said the class was helpful. Because she was required to complete timed writing assignments, her time-management skills improved.
She passed the class with a B, pushing herself through a heavier load of homework and more difficult material, and she encourages her classmates to try it, too.
“If they don’t push themselves to become better, I think it’s going to be harder when they get to college,” Flores said.
School districts across the country are increasing access to high-level course work — including AP and dual-credit courses — especially for students who have not historically had access to the advanced classes that aim to mimic college work. Experts say such courses can be key to preparing students for the demands of college even if students don’t pass, which is in line with nationwide efforts to get high school graduates ready for higher education and careers.
This academic year, every D.C. high school is required to offer at least eight AP courses.
Banneker High School, an application school in Ward 1, had the highest jump in the number of students passing AP exams since 2014. Half of the students passed their exams last school year, up from 20 percent two years ago.
Principal Anita Berger said every student in the school is required to take at least one AP class before they graduate. This school year Banneker is offering 13 AP courses, including in history, economics and art history.
Berger attributes the school’s higher passage rates to teachers working together to expose students earlier in their high school careers to the rigor of the advanced courses.
The first AP history course, for example, isn’t offered until sophomore year, but the AP history teachers gave freshman social studies teachers a list of all the vocabulary words that students should know by the time they get to the AP class.
“They now know all the words, and we don’t have to spend as much time teaching that when they first come in,” said Joseph Presley, an AP world history teacher at Banneker.
Banneker, Wilson High School and School Without Walls — the top-performing schools in the District, all of which rank highly in the America’s Most Challenging High School rankings — account for more than 85 percent of the 1,700 AP exams that received a 3 or higher, the passing score on a 5-point scale.
At Wilson, 720 students took at least one exam, the highest number in the school system.
Although participation in AP courses has increased at the city’s low-income schools, stark disparities still exist. At Ballou, 74 students took an AP exam last year. One passed. Anacostia had 47 students taking an AP test, and none passed.
Brian Pick, the district’s chief of teaching and learning, acknowledges that there is more work to do to ensure students are not only taking advanced classes but also progressing enough to pass the exams. The school district plans to send teachers to summer institutes for AP training and offers pre-AP courses at some schools, including Cardozo.
Such preparatory courses do not have a final exam for college credit, but they are designed to help students deal with the higher volume of homework and critical thinking that comes with AP courses.
Beginning in sixth grade, Cardozo students can enroll in pre-AP courses. Principal Tanya Roane hopes that will help improve the chances that students like Flores pass the exam.
Last year, only one Cardozo student passed an AP test.
“There is work to be done,” Roane said. “Our goal is to have students experience being in AP courses so that they are prepared for the rigor of taking a college-level course.”
Not passing the English test did not deter Flores; she is taking four AP courses during her senior year, including statistics and literature.
Flores’s older sister was the first in her family to go to college. Flores plans to follow her footsteps. An avid dog lover, she dreams of going to the University of California at Davis to become a veterinarian.
“Even though I didn’t pass the test, I feel like I can go to college,” she said.