- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 27, 2000

Minority students in Fairfax, Va., improved their scores in the advanced placement exams given in May this year, according to figures released yesterday by the county schools system.

Average test scores for black students increased from 2.35 in 1999 to 2.40 of a maximum 5.0 score in 2000.

More minority students took the advanced placement exams this year, although overall participation by county students dropped slightly.

Forty-three percent of black students taking the tests scored at or above 3.0. Scores for Hispanic students, however, decreased from 3.20 in 1999 to 3.15 in 2000.

The numbers overall "are very encouraging," said schools Superintendent Daniel A. Domenech in a statement. "This year, there were substantial increases in the number of minority students scoring 3.0 or higher," he said.

The exams are administered to high school students between grades 9 and 12. In May 2000, a total of 8,547 students were tested in Fairfax a drop from the 8,862 students tested in 1999.

The decrease reflected a change in the number of students in classes from year to year, and was not a matter of concern, said Kitty Porterfield, county school system spokeswoman.

"If there was a trend over time we would be concerned," she said.

Advanced placement courses are college-level courses developed and supported by the College Board. Generally, a year spent in an advanced placement course is considered the academic equivalent of a semester in an introductory college course.

Parents and School Board members in Fairfax applauded the increase in advanced placement scores, but said that much more needed to be done to close the achievement gap, particularly for black and Hispanic students.

"We have made an improvement, but we could do more," said Isis Castro, School Board member, Mount Vernon district, and the school board's liaison to the Minority Student Achievement Committee.

She pointed out that while she was not satisfied with the scores, "we are on the right track."

"We need to do more things to get minority students to take the AP courses," said Rita Thompson, member at-large.

Participation this year was particularly low among blacks and Hispanics. In 1999, 11.1 percent of the students in the county were black, but only 4.7 percent took the advanced placement exams. This year, the number rose just fractionally, to 4.8 percent.

Among Hispanic students, who comprised 11.8 percent of the county's school population in 1999, just 6 percent took the advanced placement tests both last year and this year.

Asian students are a minority group that participated in larger numbers, with 18.8 percent taking the tests. Asians comprised 14.7 percent of the school population in the county in 1999.

"We've got work to do," Mrs. Porterfield said, adding, however, that the school system already had implemented several programs toward this end.

Mitch Luxenburg, president of the Fairfax County Council of PTAs, said he was particularly concerned about the math scores. For instance, only 51 percent of students scored at or above 3.0 in Calculus AB.

"Algebra seems to be the big leap that students take … if we can make it less scary, it can help" reduce the minority achievement gap, he said.

Mrs. Porterfield said the county was already working hard to get minority children to advanced placement classes. Last year, the county implemented new guidelines under which it would pay the costs for students to take the advanced placement exams. Also, all students taking advanced placement classes would have to take the exams under the new guidelines.

In addition, the county has a strategic target to focus on enrolling a larger number of juniors and seniors in advanced placement courses and to close the enrollment gap for minorities, Mrs. Porterfield said.

Teachers in advanced placement courses are being trained to improve the quality of courses and guidance counselors are encouraged to invite children who "may not see themselves as college material" to join advanced placement courses, she said.

Mrs. Thompson said there is a need to spread more awareness about the advanced placement exams and their objective among parents in the minority groups so they would, in turn, encourage their children to take them.

"The education program has to draw out of kids their very best, no matter what color they are," she said.

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