Newsflash: Montgomery County Public Schools students took an all-time record number of Advanced Placement exams in 2011 – more than 31,700 – and 72 percent of the exams received a college-ready score of 3 or higher.

Newsflash: MCPS parents say they worry that there is too much pressure on students to succeed. Some question whether this unhealthy competitive environment is forcing students into advanced classes, such as Advanced Placement, before they are ready.

Parents can find both of these messages on the MCPS website; the AP exams story is headline news while the concern about too much academic pressure can be found in schools Superintendent Joshua Starr’s Listen and Learn Report released this month.

The 11-page report summarizes what Starr leaned from community members and MCPS staff and students during 17 events held throughout the county this fall, plus two Town Hall-style meetings with students. Nearly 1,800 people attended the sessions, with an average of 125 at the community events and 80 at the staff gatherings.

The record-breaking news about AP exams is certainly something to crow about; it demonstrates that more students are rising – and meeting – the challenge of rigorous AP instruction.

In addition, according to MCPS officials, more African American and Hispanic students are taking the classes and their performance has “improved significantly across the district.”

“We’re seeing an increase in the participation rate. We’re seeing an increase in performance that outpaces the state and nation,” Starr says in a video posted on the MCPS website. “We’re seeing our African American and Latino kids continue to take a lot of exams and do well on exams, and it’s just overall good news for Montgomery County Public Schools.”

But how to balance the good news with worries about an unhealthy competitive environment and an inability to completely eliminate the achievement gap between white and Asian students and African American and Latino kids?

Consider this from the Listen and Learn report:  

“At nearly every event, Dr. Starr was asked about the overall lower academic performance of racial minorities and student groups receiv­ing services such as Free and Reduced-price Meals (FARMS) and English for Speakers of Other Lan­guages (ESOL). Many of the community members questioned whether the district’s resources and high-quality teachers were dispersed ‘fairly’ so that students in schools that serve a large percentage of poor and minority children have the same opportunities as students in schools that serve mainly White and wealthier children.”

And: “Many parents and some students raised the issue of whether there was too much pressure on students to succeed. To many, the amount of homework given to students—especially in middle and high school—was symbolic of an unhealthy, competitive environment. Others questioned whether this environment was forcing students into advanced classes—including Advanced Placement and accelerated mathemat­ics—even though they were not ready.”

During the Town Hall meetings with students, some commented on “the competitive pressure they feel to take more advanced classes and the burden of several hours of homework,” according to the report.

Starr has said repeatedly that dealing with the variability between schools and within schools will be a top priority. And that “it was important that students had a life that was in balance and that schools focused on developing students who were not only high achieving, but also socially and emotionally competent,” according to the report.

But how to achieve these goals? There are no easy answers. Clearly they are matters that cry out for discussion and action just as much as budget cuts and other major issues.

Starr plans to hold additional Listen and Learn events in the spring to tackle some of these questions, including developing social and emotional competencies in students.

Let’s make sure we continue to let him know what we think.

Julie Rasicot

Julie Rasicot can be reached at julie.rasicot@bethesdamagazine.com