Number of students taking AP exams still climbing in county
However, percentage of Hispanics scoring well continues to drop
For Nazia Kaendera, taking multiple Advanced Placement exams is not just about earning credit toward college. The AP courses and scoring well on the college-level tests give students "a lot of characteristics," like better time management skills and a stronger work ethic, she said.
At the end of the year, the 17-year-old varsity cheerleader and member of the Student Government Association at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville will take AP tests in French, European history and literature in the hopes of increasing her chances to succeed at the University of Alberta or the University of Toronto, she said.
Students in Advanced Placement are given introductory college-level courses in high school. At the end of the year, AP students pay a fee to take a test in the class in which they are enrolled.
In Montgomery County, Kaendera is far from alone in pursuing AP courses.
The latest statistics, released Tuesday by Superintendent Jerry D. Weast, show that the county's public school students took 28,575 AP exams this year, a 10 percent increase from last year when roughly 26,000 students took the exams. The increase is the largest year-to-year rise since the 2001-2002 school year, school system officials said.
Of those taking the exams this year, 72 percent scored at least a 3 with 5 being the highest meaning they receive credits toward their college courses and are deemed ready for higher education. Last year, 71 percent scored at least a 3.
During a press conference Tuesday at Richard Montgomery, Weast acknowledged that the percentage of students earning a score of 3 on the tests has flattened; he cited the growing number of students taking the AP exams. Still, he said, the county's performance continues to outpace those of the state and the nation.
"This is not something you can fudge," Weast said. "While we're on the right path and we're doing the right thing, we've got to hold the course because there's more work to be done."
Part of that work concerns the declining percentage of Hispanic students who score a 3 or better on the AP exams. While the number of Hispanic students taking the exams has increased every year since 2005, some 55 percent of those students earned a 3 or higher the fourth consecutive year of declines, the data show.
Among black students, 48 percent earned a 3 or higher this year, up slightly from last year's percentage, but still the lowest among all subgroups.
The percentage of the county's black and Hispanic students scoring well on the AP tests still surpasses their counterparts at the state and national levels.
Some Hispanic students came to the school system with interrupted education and limited English-speaking skills, which partially explained the declining percentage of those students earning a 3 or better, Weast said in response to a reporter's question.
The main goal, he added, is to give access to minority students who previously would have been denied the chance to take an AP class. In years past, the school system only allowed students with the highest grades to take the advanced classes.
Students who don't do well in AP classes or score well on the exams still have success in college, said Jim Hull, policy analyst for the Center for Public Education, a division of the National School Boards Association that serves as a national resource for public education data.
"Even if they don't pass the course, it shows that they are ready for college, or life after high school, even if they don't go to college," he said.
The push for more AP exams is not unique to Maryland. In 2005, the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices launched the Advanced Placement Expansion project in 51 high schools in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maine, Nevada and Wisconsin.
The project, according to a report issued in August by the College Board, showed that the number of students who took AP courses rose 65 percent in two years, and the number of minorities and low-income students who took AP exams more than doubled.
That same report acknowledged Maryland as one of six leading AP states in the nation, partially because of its rigorous middle school curriculum, which makes AP classes less intimidating in high school.
For student school board member Timothy Hwang, the AP courses are almost a way of life. He has taken 22 AP exams and scored an average of 4.2 on them.
All told, his family has spent $2,000 in AP fees, Hwang said.
"It wasn't an easy thing to ask my dad for a check for $2,000," he said. "And it wasn't easy going to the library late into the night when you have English, history and science exams the next day."