It surely is true that where you stand depends on where you sit.
About every year now The Washington Post runs a story about AP test taking in Montgomery County Public Schools, an affluent, though not exclusively so (about 25 percent free lunch overall), school district just outside of Washington, D.C. serving about 139,000 students. To be sure Montgomery County has made admirable strides in increasing access to AP courses for more students especially low-income and minority students. For instance the number of low-income students taking AP tests has increased from 160 to 1112 in the past eight years. That should be commended and celebrated. But, Montgomery County has proven to be at least as good at marketing (only the school board president, to her credit, offers a cautionary note in the press release) as they are at increasing AP course taking. And The Post uncritically falls for it every time.
Presumably keying off the county’s syrupy and context-free data presentation, the articles give scant treatment to the magnitude of the inequity that still exists and how much work remains to be done. For example, while African-American students make up about 23 percent of Montgomery County’s high school population they account for only about six percent of the passed AP tests. For Hispanic students the numbers are 19 percent and seven percent, respectively, and 19 percent and six percent for low-income students. Meanwhile, other achievement gaps remain stubborn. That’s why twice as many (6 to 3) Montgomery County high schools make the Washington Post/Newsweek “Challenge Index,” which is not achievement-gap sensitive than hit the board for U.S. News’ ranking of American high schools, which takes into account achievement gaps and AP test taking as well as passing.
Again, none of this is to denigrate the work that Montgomery County is doing here, they are national leaders on this issue. Three high schools on the U.S. News list isn’t too shabby at all. But the fact that they are leaders, even with those numbers, should be sobering news because of how far they still need to go and how grim the situation is nationally. The Post story concludes by noting that only 1313 AP tests were passed by African-American students in New York City last year, a million student school system. That’s true, and it’s shocking. You have to think that if such a calamity were being visited on affluent white students it wouldn’t be buried at the very bottom of an article that itself overlooks the scale of the national challenge here. It would be on the front page. That is, after all, where they put the really important news like oral sex at affluent suburban middle schools…