Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Comparing Maryland & Illinois AP participation rates


View the ad hoc Voxitatis report here.

Maryland has been a runaway leader in Advanced Placement for some time, but Illinois, our other coverage beat, has been slow to catch up. To underscore the difference, we compared Jay Mathews’s “Challenge Index” for the two states. He publishes the index in the Washington Post every summer. He used to publish it in Newsweek, but that news journal is no longer in existence.

The index is computed by dividing the number of AP exams taken by students at a high school each year and dividing it by the number of graduates in that senior class. For example, if a total of 200 AP exams are taken by students at ABC High School in the spring of 2012 and the Class of 2012 has 100 graduates in it, the Challenge Index for ABC High School in 2012 would be 2.0.

In order to make the cut for the final published list, high schools have to achieve a Challenge Index of at least 1.0. In the most recent set of Challenge Index numbers, Mr Mathews used graduation data from 2012, the most recent data he could get. For example, Illinois high schools won’t publish their graduation rates for the Class of 2013 until the end of October, and the Post wants to publish the list in the summer. Therefore, since graduation data are used from 2012, the AP exam count from 2012 is also used.

The benefits of AP

When I wrote about this index a few years back, here, I was a little critical: Oh someone’s got another list that ranks high schools, I can remember thinking. Big whoop! But AP’s a lot more than ranking, so I’m finally getting around to sharing my thoughts about this year’s Challenge Index. I still don’t think the rankings themselves really mean too much or should be taken too seriously.

What is important, as many parents are now discovering as their kids start college, is that the rigorous curriculum, provided by the College Board for the AP instructors, helps to wake students up and makes them realize that the work ethic for doing well in college-level courses is completely different from the work ethic for passing a high school course, even an honors-level course.

I hope students can learn about work ethic without having to struggle in college-level courses at age 16, but not every high school student who wants to go to college has opportunities to work on a team, work on long-term projects, or study a vast amount of material every night that really is on the test. There’s some benefit there, perhaps.

But as Stephanie Simon reports on Politico, no good research has ever shown that students derive any lasting benefits from taking college classes while they’re still in high school or from taking the AP exams. This leads Ms Simon to question whether the investment of tax dollars in AP programs is a good idea. “Enrollment in AP classes has soared. But data analyzed by POLITICO shows that the number of kids who bomb the AP exams is growing even more rapidly,” she writes.

Maryland vs Illinois by the numbers

Let’s cut to the chase. Maryland had 124 high schools make the list, and Illinois had 62, exactly half the number on the list from Maryland. On top of that, Illinois has more than twice as many high schools as Maryland does, so if anything, the number of schools on the list should be exactly reversed.

Another way of saying this is, in Maryland, it’s hard to find a public high school that didn’t make the cut, and in Illinois, it’s hard to find one that did.

One data point that does make some sense is the number of high schools on the Challenge list that posted passing rates of lower than 10 percent on the numerous AP exams students took. Maryland has three schools on the list that are so designated, while Illinois has none. This may indicate a trend to push students into taking the AP exams in those three Maryland schools when they aren’t ready, but I can’t say for sure what caused this troubling asterisk to Maryland’s stellar AP performance.

But both Maryland and Illinois are improving in terms of offering students the challenges of the AP curriculum. In the 2009 index, for example, the last time I reported about this particular sorting of high schools, only 51 high schools in Illinois made the list. The 62 that made the list this year represents about a 20 percent increase. There’s still a long way to go, but at least we’re moving in the right direction.

I created a little ad hoc report—nothing fancy, just a little something to let you view the data from a few different angles and find your school. It has tabs for Illinois, tabs for Maryland, and tabs that put schools from both states on the list.

Feel free to share your thoughts about AP or the ranking of high schools below.

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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