Students Taking AP Tests Increase 125% in 4 Years

December 4, 2003
The number of students in the Montgomery County Public Schools taking Advanced Placement (AP) tests has increased by 125 percent since 1999, with the number of individual AP tests taken increasing by 137 percent over that same time period, according to new results released today [Thursday, December 4] of a study by the Office of Shared Accountability.

The numbers of tests and students taking the tests have increased each year, providing a consistent and continuous improvement over the last four years -- with the most significant jump this past year as 8,841 students took 16,954 AP tests in 22 subject areas.

At the same time, the annual “Challenge Index,” published today by The Washington Post, rated all 23 Montgomery County high schools as among the top 100 schools in the region for the first time, and 15 schools were listed among the top 50, using a formula based largely on the number of AP tests taken by students last year.

The “Challenge Index” rated Richard Montgomery High School for the first time as the top scoring school in the Washington area. Two other high schools -- Thomas S. Wootton and Bethesda-Chevy Chase -- were identified by the newspaper as among the top 10 schools in the area. And four additional schools -- Winston Churchill, Walter Johnson, Walt Whitman, and Springbrook -- made the list of the top 25 high schools.

The results confirm earlier findings from a school system review of high school courses in which student enrollment in AP courses increased to 25.4 percent last year, compared with just 15.4 percent four years ago. The combined enrollment in all honors and AP courses increased to 67 percent last year, with more than 26,000 students engaged in the most difficult coursework offered in our high schools.

Increase Reflects Reform Initiatives

“The rapid increase in student participation in AP and honors courses reflects the reform efforts designed to prepare and encourage more students to stretch themselves academically,” said Dr. Jerry D. Weast, superintendent of schools, in a report to the Board of Education. “High school and middle school principals, teachers, and support staff have worked very hard over the past four years to open the pathway to academically rigorous courses.”

In middle school, for example, the effort has transformed mathematics preparation prior to high school, with 51 percent of middle school students last year completing Algebra 1 or a higher level mathematics course, compared with 41 percent four years ago. Last year, SAT recorded an all-time high participation rate of 81 percent last year for the second consecutive year.

The College Board recently announced awards to 1,907 high school students from all 23 high schools, including both current students and last year's graduates, for their excellent performance on 2003 AP tests -- an increase of 420 students compared with 2002. Twenty of these students were named national AP scholars, a gain of one over the previous year.

“However, we are a long way from reaching our goals,” Dr. Weast said. He noted that six years from now the first class of kindergarten children to benefit from our early reading reforms will reach high school and “set a whole new standard for academic achievement in this county.

“We know from previous research that there is a high correlation between being able to read fluently by Grade 3 and ultimately being ready for higher-level course work in high school,” Dr. Weast said. “In one respect, our AP and honors preparation actually begins in kindergarten.”

The higher participation on the AP tests has contributed to a slightly lower systemwide average score (from 3.63 four years ago to 3.36 last year). Even with the slight overall decline, however, the vast majority of students were eligible for college credit last year on a scale that rewards the top scores of 3, 4, and 5 with potential college and university course recognition.

In fact, 76 percent of the AP tests from Montgomery County had a score of 3 or higher in 22 specific subjects last year, compared with the statewide average of 68 percent. (Montgomery County actually accounted for more than one-third of all of the students taking AP tests last year in Maryland and one-third of all AP tests taken across the state.)

Increases Evident Across School System

The increased participation rate is evident among all racial and ethnic groups. The recent study of AP tests shows that more than three times as many African American students took an AP test last year (726) than in 1999 (197). Similar results occurred for Hispanic students, with three times as many students (560) taking an AP test compared with four years ago (169).

However, the percentage of tests earning a score of 3 or higher dropped from 69 percent four years ago to 53 percent last year for African American students, and the average score declined from 3.16 to 2.66. Among Hispanic students, the percentage of scores earning a 3 or higher dropped from 84 percent to 65 percent last year, with the average score declining from 3.51 to 3.23.

Overall, the vast majority of students taking the AP tests last year were white (5,556 students) and Asian American (1,962 students), and the number of students taking an AP test has more than doubled since 1999 among both groups.

Among white students, the percentage of tests earning a score of 3 or higher declined from 85 percent to 80 percent, and from 81 percent to 74 percent among Asian American students, still a significantly high percentage of college-credit scores among the 14,782 tests taken by these two groups last year (87 percent of the total taken systemwide). Average scores on the AP tests for white students declined from 3.7 four years ago to 3.48 last year, and from 3.53 to 3.31 among Asian American students.

“For African American and Hispanic students, better preparation and support will be necessary to succeed in earning the top scores on the AP tests that qualify for college credit,” Dr. Weast said. “Nonetheless, the increased participation rate has opened a significant gateway to higher achievement among African American and Hispanic students.”

According to the earlier review of course enrollment, the percentage of African American students enrolled in at least one AP course more than doubled from 5.6 percent four years ago to 11.7 percent last year. The percentage of Hispanic students enrolled in at least one AP course increased from 6.6 percent four years ago to 11.7 percent last year.

By comparison, 32 percent of white high school students were enrolled last year in an AP course, compared with 19.2 percent four years ago. Among Asian American students, course enrollment grew from 22.5 percent four years ago to 35.2 percent last year.

These are important findings in light of recommendations made in 1999 in a study of student participation in the school system's most challenging courses and the obstacles faced at that time by African American and Hispanic students.

Since that time, significant efforts to open the enrollment in honors and AP classes have included various activities that originated among individual schools and systemwide programs designed to unify the school district's approach to student participation in honors and AP courses.

Note: Copies of the report to the Board of Education and charts highlighting the results are available at the links below as PDF files.

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