Five years ago, getting more students ready for college by welcoming them into Advanced Placement courses and tests was not a high priority at Patuxent High School in Lusby. Like most American high schools, it put its best students in such classes and discouraged others from trying.
But Patuxent teachers have been reading research showing that even students who struggle and do poorly on the college-level exams are still better prepared for college than if they did not take the AP courses and tests at all, and the school's policy has changed.
This year, according to The Washington Post's annual Challenge Index, Patuxent had one of the largest jumps in college-level test participation in Southern Maryland. It went from 313 to 506 AP tests in just one year and had an index rating of 1.275, the highest in its history.
Nationally, schools with ratings that high rank in the top 4 percent of all U.S. high schools.
"I think our success is related to our expectations that we want our AP students to not only be challenged by taking the courses, but also taking the exams," said Patuxent Principal Gordon Libby.
Libby expressed gratitude to two experienced AP teachers, Alex Jaffurs and Katie Dredger, who have been working with Calvert County schools to improve AP programs. "These teachers truly believe that all students can benefit from AP courses," he said.
Calvert County ranked 19th among 23 local districts on this year's Challenge Index. Charles County ranked eighth, St. Mary's County ranked 15th, and both had significant growth in the number of AP tests, with Charles increasing 30 percent and St. Mary's increasing 45 percent.
The College Board created AP in 1956 as a program for a few elite public and private high schools. Juniors and seniors were given college credit for some high-level courses so they would not be bored by having to cover the same material in college. But average and below-average high schools -- such as East Los Angeles's Garfield High School, portrayed in the film "Stand and Deliver" -- found that the program helped their students, too.
International Baccalaureate, another program popular in the Washington area, was begun in 1968 by educators in Geneva as a high-level standard curriculum for high schools around the world that catered to the children of diplomats and international business executives.
AP and IB courses are taught by high school teachers who must prepare students for final exams that are written and scored by outside experts. AP tests usually have 90 minutes of multiple-choice questions and 90 minutes of essay questions or items involving complex problem-solving and are graded by people rather than computers. IB exams, which usually have all essay or problem-solving questions, can take as long as five hours, and IB students also write a 4,000-word paper to receive a full IB diploma.
Washington-area schools are much more likely to encourage students to take college-level courses than schools elsewhere in the country. Nationally, only about 5 percent of public schools achieve a 1.000 rating on the Challenge Index, whereas this year a record 61 percent of the region's public schools achieved that mark. A 1.000 rating means that a school gives at least as many college-level tests each year as it has graduating seniors.
Test scores are usually higher for more affluent schools, but college-level test participation, as measured by the index, shows that similarly affluent schools often have very different policies toward AP and IB. In affluent Howard County, for instance, Hammond High School has a Challenge Index rating of 0.816, while Northwest High in neighboring Montgomery County has a rating of 1.665 even though the two schools have very small percentages of low-income students. J.E.B. Stuart High School in Fairfax County, where 53 percent of the students come from low-income families, does better than both, with a rating of 1.802.
Dave Shaffner, an AP world history teacher at Wheaton High School in Montgomery County, where 38 percent of the students come from low-income families, noted the school's increase in rating from 0.244 in 2000 to 1.574 this year. "This confirms my belief that the doors of opportunity should not be blocked by our narrow conceptions of who can be successful," he said. The AP coordinator at Frederick Douglass High School in Prince George's County saw an increase from 61 to 157 tests in just one year. "The AP teachers are working hard with students, and some are even attending workshops held by the College Board to improve their knowledge of teaching AP level courses," she said.
Rodger "Tony" Jones, principal of Potomac High School in Prince William County, said his school had the highest percentage of minorities in the county taking AP tests, and its rating went from 0.884 to 1.352 in just a year.
The index does not use the percentage of students who pass their AP and IB tests because reporting passing rates would reward the majority of high schools nationally who do not allow B and C students to take the courses and tests.
Many educators in this area have accepted the advice of AP experts that even flunking the test is better than not taking it and that once their students start taking the tests, they will have an opportunity to improve their passing rates. But getting the scores up can be hard, slow work.
Cardozo High School, a school where 82 percent of the students qualify for federal lunch subsidies, has gone from 30 AP tests in 1999 to 129 this year. The number of students scoring high enough to earn college credit on the exams has also increased, but only from zero in 1999 to 12 this year. Seven D.C. schools had no students passing an AP test this year.
At Patuxent, the passing rate on AP tests this year was 67 percent, above the national average.