AP classes: a glass half-full

It's really no surprise that top students at Maryland's highest-performing high schools are passing the Advanced Placement exams at rates far higher than their peers in the state's lower-performing schools. The test results reflect not just how much students have learned over the previous year in an AP class but how well their entire school experience has prepared them for college-level work.

That's why raising AP pass rates across the board isn't just a matter of better facilities or teaching methods in a handful of advanced high school courses. Boosting the success rates for students in every school district will require a commitment to improving the quality of instruction at every level throughout a student's academic career, starting from the earliest years.

As The Sun's Liz Bowie reported this week, pass rates on the AP tests vary widely across the state, from a high of 80 percent in Howard County to a low of 20 percent in Dorchester County. Nor is it any coincidence that the jurisdictions with the highest AP pass rates also are among the state's wealthiest, or that low-income, minority students generally have lower pass rates than their more affluent peers. All the other indicators of college readiness — SAT scores, graduation rates and admissions to selective colleges — point to a similar divide in academic outcomes, and unfortunately there's no quick fix likely to close those gaps.

Yet, that doesn't mean the state's efforts over the last decade to greatly expand the number of schools offering AP courses and the number of students taking the exams haven't been effective. Maryland leads the nation in the percentage of its students taking and passing AP exams, and although that is a distinction the state can be proud of, serious problems remain. Only a quarter of the low-income and minority students enrolled in AP courses pass the AP exam, even though they received classroom grades equivalent to their white peers. That suggests their school districts have not adequately prepared them for the rigors of a test where success depends on the application of critical thinking skills acquired in earlier grades.

Ms. Bowie's report cited several examples of top students at lower-performing high schools who earned As and Bs for their work in class, yet failed to score high enough on the AP exam to earn college credit. One reason appears to be that students in the lower-performing high schools weren't as well prepared academically. But the different outcomes also suggest that teachers there graded students according to lower standard than did teachers in the high-performing schools.

That's not to say grades aren't a valuable measure of student achievement or that schools shouldn't be offering AP courses to more students. But educators must recognize the need to relate what happens in the classroom to students' performance on the exam, and evaluate grades and test results accordingly. One of the purposes of AP courses is to expose students to the rigors of college-level material so they can work to strengthen their language and math skills. But they can't do that if their classroom grades mislead them into believing their skills are stronger than they actually are.

Ideally, students' exam performance should allow teachers to see how their students are comparing with students elsewhere. Maryland was one of the first states to adopt the Common Core curriculum that aims to set national standards for student achievement, and that should also help teachers become more aware of how well students are mastering the concepts underlying the AP classes offered at their particular school.

At same time, however, taking AP courses simply to get credits that allow one to shorten one's college career probably shouldn't be the main reason students choose to enroll in such classes. What the tests really represent is mastery of the most rigorous high school work in the country, not a substitute for college courses, and many students who earn the highest scores on the exams will still be required to take those courses when they enter college.

Educators need to concentrate on raising standards across the board long before that, and they also need to develop better ways of determining which students are truly ready to tackle the toughest courses. That's never an easy call, but teachers and principals must take into account all the factors — motivation, family support, outside activities and work requirements — to allow as many students as possible to benefit from exposure to the higher standards and more rigorous evaluations they will encounter during their college careers.