More public school students in the Maryland suburbs are taking and passing Advanced Placement exams, the pre-eminent signal of college readiness, according to 2012 data released Wednesday by the local school systems.

Montgomery County students took a record 32,974 AP exams last spring, with 75 percent of those tests receiving college-ready scores of 3, 4 or 5. The pass rate increased more than 3 percentage points over 2011, marking the highest pass rate since 2006.

"These results show that our efforts to provide students with access to rigorous classes are making a difference and that our students are prepared for this work," said school board President Shirley Brandman.

Onward and upward
The participation and performance of public school students on Advanced Placement exams:
  Exams taken Exams with passing score (3 or higher) Percent of exams passed
Montgomery County 32,974 (+4.0%) 24,735 (+8.5%) 75% (+4.5%)
Prince George's County 8,951 (-0.3%) 2,437 (+9.7%) 27.2% (+10.1%)
Maryland 102,354 (+5.3%) 62,802 (+9.5%) 61.4% (+4.1%)
Nation 3,151,132 (+6.9%) 1,804,458 (+9.6%) 57.3% (+2.7%)
Sources: College Board, Prince George's County Public Schools, Montgomery County Public Schools

In Prince George's County, the number of students who took the college-level tests increased 0.4 percent last spring to 5,395 -- but the overall number of exams taken slipped 0.3 percent to 8,951. Still, significantly more of the tests received passing grades: 2,437, up 9.7 percent over 2011.

Briant Coleman, a spokesman for the school system, said Prince George's County Public Schools began sending its teachers to summer courses taught by College Board, the nonprofit that administers AP exams.

"They assisted the teachers in better understanding what the AP exams and courses are all about, so they had a better understanding of how to get students prepared for the exams," Coleman said.

When asked how the school system would address more students taking fewer exams, Coleman said, "The only way I can respond to that is just by encouraging them to participate in the courses and the exams."

More than 102,000 exams were taken by public school students across Maryland, an increase of more than 5,000 tests over 2011. The pass rate rose from 59 percent to 61.4 percent.

Nationally, students in public schools took 3.15 million exams, passing 57.3 percent of them, an increase over the 2.95 million taken in 2011 with a pass rate of 55.8 percent.

Both school systems acknowledged the persistent achievement gap between white and Asian students and their African-American and Hispanic peers, although both Montgomery and Prince George's made strides in narrowing those performance gulfs.

"We must continue to provide all of our students with access to meaningful, relevant classes -- like AP -- that prepare them for success in college and beyond," said Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Joshua Starr. "I know that MCPS has the staff and the strong community support to get this work done better and faster than any school district in the nation."

Across the Potomac, Fairfax County is expected to release its 2012 results next week.