The number of college-level courses and tests in Anne Arundel County high schools soared 69 percent this year, a record increase for the county and one of the largest increases ever in the Washington area.
Fueled by Superintendent Eric J. Smith's strong commitment to the Advanced Placement (AP) program and a decision to pay the fees for AP students who take the three-hour AP exams, many county schools doubled the number of tests they gave last May, but none achieved a boost of test-taking quite as large as that of Southern High School in Harwood.
According The Washington Post's annual Challenge Index, Southern rose from just 141 AP tests in 2003 to 491 tests this year. Its Challenge Index AP participation rating jumped to 1.7920, one of the highest in the county and among the top 3 percent in the country.
"Many of the teachers at Southern High School agree that Advanced Placement is more than just another program. It is a state of mind," said Todd Smith, Southern's social studies chairperson. "Students who opt to take AP courses know from the beginning that they are going to have more rigorous coursework, the challenges will be greater and the rewards that much sweeter."
Anne Arundel schools spokesman Jonathan Brice said, "We have reached our 2007 goal to have 40 percent of our high school students taking at least one AP course, and are well on our way to having 70 percent of AP students score 3 or higher on the [5-point] exam."
The surge of AP test-taking caused Anne Arundel to jump from 16th to ninth place on the Challenge Index's ranked list of local school districts. Its average rating was 1.293, and seven of its 12 high schools achieved at least a 1.000, putting them among the top 5 percent of all U.S. schools.
Some critics of AP say that the tests demand too much memorization of facts and that teenagers are putting too much stress on themselves by taking several AP courses at once to impress colleges.
But Todd Smith said the academic experience is invaluable for students who have grown accustomed to standard high school courses that do not demand much work or thought.
"I remind students that even if they get a C in their AP class, the experience of having taken the class, along with the risk of going outside the student's comfort zone, will benefit the student in the long run," Todd Smith said. "The current statistics reflect that the greatest single variable to predict whether or not a student who enters college will matriculate through a four-year program is if they have AP courses under their belt."
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.
A similar program in the Washington area, International Baccalaureate (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 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 last as long as five hours, and IB students also write a 4,000-word paper to receive a full IB diploma.
The Challenge Index intentionally ignores what percentage of students pass their AP and IB tests, because reporting passing rates would reward the majority of high schools nationally that let only their best students take the tests -- a bad idea, according to research.
Anne Arundel's Superintendent Smith is one of the leading national advocates of the idea that struggling in an AP course and failing the exam builds academic muscles that will be useful in college. Districts he led previously have some of the highest AP participation rates in the country, and he promised to do the same for schools in Anne Arundel.
Washington area schools are much more likely to encourage students to take college-level courses than are schools elsewhere in the country. Nationally, only about 5 percent of public schools achieve a 1.000 rating -- which indicates that at least as many tests were given as there are seniors -- on the Challenge Index, whereas this year a record 61 percent of the region's public schools achieved that mark.
Test scores are usually higher for affluent schools, but college-level test participation, as measured by the index, shows that similarly affluent schools often have 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. Both schools have single-digit percentages of low-income students. J.E.B Stuart High School in Fairfax County, where 53 percent of the 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 take a three-hour college exam for the first time, an experience that admissions deans say is invaluable for prospective college freshmen.
Todd Smith said the AP program at Southern has also been strengthened by a special program that teaches study habits, as well as by seminars that give extra support to AP students who need it. "We have put in place the building blocks for student achievement here at Southern High School," he said.