Washington-area high school students are failing a larger percentage of college course-level exams -- losing out on college credit and showing a shortfall in learning -- as more of them take the test.
In 2010, 15,439 Fairfax County Public Schools students took 32,230 Advanced Placement exams, with 5 percent more students taking 7.5 percent more exams than in 2009. Participation jumped most dramatically among minority students, with 10.3 percent more blacks and 13.3 percent more Hispanics taking one or more AP exams than in 2009. But only 70 percent of test takers received a passing score of 3 or above, slipping from last year's 71 percent.
|Passing exams (3 or higher)|
|Number of exams taken|
|Source: School districts|
In Montgomery County, 15,425 students took at least one AP exam, nearly 5 percent more than last year. Those students passed 71.7 percent of exams, higher than Fairfax's pass rate, but slightly lower than Montgomery's 72.3 percent in 2009.
Schools spokesman Dana Tofig said he was "extremely excited" about this year's scores, considering that 4,000 more Montgomery students were taking the test than three years ago: "We have held fairly steady in scores."
In the District, 1,720 public school students sat for 2,940 exams last year, up from 2009, when 1,493 students took 2,580 exams. Most notably, black student participation increased by 21 percent alongside a 5.3 percent higher pass rate. Nearly 40 percent of D.C. Public Schools offers AP classes.
Both Montgomery and Fairfax had higher passing and participation rates than Maryland, Virginia or the national average.
Fairfax School Board member Jane Strauss credited higher AP exam participation rates on "pushing it like crazy."
"[Our students] know that AP courses and how well they do in them are important in their quest to attend the college of their choice."
Both districts are battling an achievement gap between black and Hispanic students and their white and Asian peers, which appeared as their communities diversified in the last decade.
Montgomery's participation increased most significantly for minorities: 16.4 percent more black and 9.2 percent more Hispanic students took at least one AP exam, compared with a 1.6 percent increase for white students.
A teacher at Sherwood High School said most Montgomery high schools have special committees to identify minority students who should take AP courses.
"Like kids who haven't taken any AP classes but have been getting Bs and Cs, or if their GPA is above 2.0, they'll try to target that student and enroll them in an AP course," said the teacher, who spoke on background. "They know the subgroups they're trying to increase [participation for]. It's not a secret."
Of 19 subjects areas offered, 50 percent or more of black test-takers failed 12 subject areas. On nine of the exams, at least half of Hispanic students failed. There were no exams on which white or Asian students failed at a rate of 50 percent. Fairfax did not break down demographic data by individual exams.
But there were benefits to taking AP classes, even if a student didn't pass the year-end exam: "You're being exposed to challenging material. You're with a different group of kids than you would otherwise be with," the Sherwood teacher said.
One reason scores may have dropped, he said, was increased efforts to identify advanced ninth-grade students who may be ready for AP classes.
Laurie Halverson, vice president for educational issues for the Montgomery County Council of PTAs, said that at Winston Churchill, which her son attends, "They've encouraged a few kids as freshmen to take AP U.S. History." Even for these top performers, "That's very challenging for a freshman to do."
Advanced Placement exams are scored on a scale from one to five, with three as the minimum passing score. Many colleges offer credit or advanced course placement for students scoring a three or above.
Staff Writer Hayley Peterson contributed to this article.