Loudoun and Fauquier county high schools showed strong gains this year in the number of college-level tests taken, with the Fauquier school district more than doubling the number of Advanced Placement (AP) tests taken over 2003.
According to The Washington Post's annual Challenge Index, Fauquier increased tests taken from 269 last year to 644 this year, as it adopted the policy followed by Loudoun and other jurisdictions of paying AP testing fees and requiring AP students to take what are usually optional exams.
_____Challenge Index_____ • Jay Mathews ranks Washington area public schools in the 2004 Challenge Index.
Loudoun remained in sixth place among 23 Washington area jurisdictions, as measured by participation in college-level tests, such as AP or International Baccalaureate (IB). Its average rating was 1.740.
Fauquier moved from 22nd to 18th place, with a new rating of 0.946. Fauquier High School became the first in the county to achieve a rating above 1.000, which places it among the top 5 percent of schools in the country measured this way.
The Challenge Index rates each school by dividing the number of AP or IB tests given by the number of seniors graduating. A rating of 1.000 or higher means the school gave at least as many AP or IB tests as it had graduating seniors.
Every school in Loudoun has surpassed 1.000, and many of its schools showed a rise in the number of tests receiving passing grades. Usually when schools bring more students into AP, grades decline because new students have more trouble adjusting to the long reading lists and three-hour exams.
Sharon Ackerman, Loudoun's assistant superintendent for instruction, said county schools have benefited from the School Board's decision to finance PSAT tests for all ninth-, 10th- and 11th-graders so teachers can identify more students who might do well in AP.
"It has been my belief that increasing participation in AP classes should be our first goal and that if we do a good job in developing excellent AP instruction and appropriate support to students, then the AP score distribution will progressively reflect greater percentages of the three, four and five scores" on the five-point test, Ackerman said.
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 courses so they would not have 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 the program helped their students, too.
IB was begun in 1968 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 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. Students also write a 4,000-word paper to receive a full IB diploma.
Some critics say the AP tests demand too much memorization of facts, and teenagers are putting too much stress on themselves by taking several AP courses at once to impress colleges. But many Washington area educators say the courses are much better than the honors courses they had before.
Washington area schools are much more likely to encourage students to take college-level courses than schools elsewhere in the country. Although only about 5 percent of public schools nationwide achieve a 1.000 rating on the Challenge Index, a record 61 percent of Washington region schools achieved that mark this year.
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 Maryland's 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 single-digit percentages of low-income students. Fairfax County's J.E.B Stuart High School, where 53 percent of the student body is low-income, does better than both, with a rating of 1.802.
Fairfax schools doubled their Challenge Index ratings in 1999 over 1998 after the School Board decided to open AP to all students, pay their test fees and require that everyone in those courses take the final exam, which had been optional. This gave many students an opportunity to sweat through a three-hour college exam for the first time, an experience that admissions deans say is invaluable for soon-to-be-college freshmen.
The same jump in participation rates occurred in Loudoun after it began paying for the AP tests in 2001 and requiring that all AP students take them.
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 that won't let B and C students 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 is often hard, slow work. Cardozo High School in the District has gone from 30 AP tests taken in 1999 to 129 this year, in a school where 82 percent of the students qualify for federal lunch subsidies. 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 this year had no students passing an AP test.