Using an unusual variety of programs, Prince William County has become one of the first large school districts in the country in which the number of college-level tests taken in every high school exceeds the number of graduating seniors.
According to the 2004 Washington Post Challenge Index, all eight Prince William high schools achieved a rating of 1.000 or higher, averaging more college-level tests in a year than it had graduating seniors. Prince Williams joins Fairfax, Loudoun and Montgomery counties as among the few large districts that have pushed their college preparation programs to that level.
Manassas Park High School in Manassas Park and Osbourn High School in Manassas also reached the 1.000 mark for the first time.
Prince William achieved that with the two best-known programs, Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB), as well as the lesser-known Cambridge Program, which gives examinations modeled after school-leaving tests in Great Britain.
"We believe that we have been able to achieve this level of participation by preparing students at an early age to be interested in taking AP, IB and Cambridge courses," Prince William Superintendent Edward L. Kelly said. "We have a summer reading list, a required 11th grade research paper, and we use curriculum management tests to ensure that students have mastered our curriculum objectives."
Gail Hubbard, supervisor of gifted education and special programs for the county schools, said, "We are very proud of the fact that this year, for the first time, all of our schools passed the 1.000 mark."
Osbourn High in Manassas went from 316 to 441 AP tests in a year after deciding to pay students' test fees. Its rating rose from 0.840 to 1.232 and the number of passing tests increased from 50 percent to 56 percent, which is unusual when test participation increases. Manassas Park High went from 74 tests to 112 tests, including some community college examinations, and raised its rating from 0.733 to 1.143 after deciding to encourage more students to try the courses.
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 annual Challenge Index, a record 61 percent of Washington region schools reached that mark.
The Prince William schools that reached 1.000 for the first time this year were Brentsville, Forest Park and Potomac.
"We are very fortunate to have highly qualified teachers as well as an enthusiastic, eager-to-learn group of students," said Sally B. Harmon, coordinator of the Cambridge program at Potomac High.
Potomac Principal Rodger "Tony" Jones said that although his school had the highest percentage of minorities in the county taking AP tests, its rating rose from 0.884 to 1.352 in just a year.
Some critics of AP say that the tests demand too much memorization of facts and that students are putting too much stress on themselves by taking several AP courses simultaneously to impress colleges. Many area educators say the programs have helped energize their schools.
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. Average and below average high schools -- such as East Los Angeles' Garfield High School, portrayed in the film "Stand and Deliver" -- found that the program helped their students, too.
IB 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 written and scored by outside experts. AP tests usually have 90 minutes of multiple-choice questions and 90 minutes of essay questions or complex problem solving. They 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. IB students also write a 4,000-word paper to receive a full IB diploma.
Test scores are usually higher for more affluent schools, but college-level test participation, as measured by the index, shows that schools with similar demographics often have very different policies toward AP and IB. In affluent Howard County, Md., 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, although the two schools have single-digit percentages of low-income students. J.E.B Stuart High School in Fairfax County, where 53 percent of students are low income, does better than both, with a rating of 1.802.
Schools in Fairfax County doubled their Challenge Index ratings in just a year in 1999 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. That gave many students a chance to sweat through a three-hour college exam for the first time, an experience that admissions deans say is invaluable for people soon to be college freshmen.
Prince William pays testing fees for courses in core subjects, such as math and English.