Exam proctors at Arlington's H-B Woodlawn have noticed a strange development over the last few years as the number of students taking Advanced Placement courses has soared.
Come May, when some seniors are scheduled to take three, or four, of the three-hour AP exams, a few students come into the testing room, sign their names to their answer sheets and then put their heads on the table and spend the entire period sleeping.
For that, the students get the lowest grade on the 5-point AP test, a 1, but teachers and students say some are willing to blow off at least one test each spring because the school pays the exam fees, they don't need to send the grade to their colleges, and they want more time to sleep and to study for AP exams they care more about.
The result, according to The Washington Post's annual Challenge Index, is that Woodlawn has the highest level of college-level course participation in the area, but a passing rate on the tests of only 53 percent, compared with the 73 percent passing rate at Arlington's Yorktown High School, which, like Woodlawn, is largely populated by middle-class students, but ones who do not take as many AP tests.
Woodlawn's Challenge Index rating was 5.748. Two other Arlington County schools were also in the top 10, with Washington-Lee, which also gives International Baccalaureate tests, ranked seventh with a rating of 3.491 and Yorktown ranked 10th with a rating of 3.286.
Wakefield ranked 32nd with a rating of 2.090, and Alexandria's only public high school, T.C. Williams, ranked 104th with a rating of 0.949. Washington area public schools are far ahead of the rest of the country in college level course participation, so all four Arlington schools would rank in the top 3 percent on any national list, and T.C. Williams would be in at least the top 10 percent.
Woodlawn Principal Frank Haltiwanger and AP teachers said there are several other explanations for the school's lower rate of students scoring at least a 3 on the AP exams, which is enough to earn credit at many colleges. The school has more periods in the day, which allows students to take more courses. The school also allows students into AP courses even if the subject might be a struggle for them. And since the Challenge Index shows the school averaging 5.747 AP tests for every graduating senior, even if students tried to do well on all those tests, the load might be too much.
But if it makes sense to students to sleep during an AP test, the staff at Woodlawn say that's fine. Woodlawn is a magnet school that provides a unique program where students have few rules and are allowed much more independence than students at other schools. The school's philosophy, Haltiwanger said, is "giving students choices and letting them make substantive decisions, even if teachers might have a different perspective."
No one knows how many Woodlawn students have punted their AP exams. Senior Oliver Nakad said he has heard of the practice but has not seen it firsthand. He said that by May, with college acceptance guaranteed, some seniors don't see the point of taking the tests.
"It's hard to get college credit for AP anyway," he said.
Jim Egenrieder, an AP biology teacher at Woodlawn, said he sees some students' unusual approach to AP exams as an encouraging indication that "they are in these classes simply to learn this college material at a higher level than they would in a regular high school course, and they are not nearly as concerned about placing out of the course in college."
Twenty-two percent of the 431 AP exams given at Woodlawn in May earned scores of 1. That compares to 10 percent of the 1,091 AP exams given at Yorktown and 18 percent of the 453 exams given at Washington-Lee. Eighteen percent of the 499 exams given at T.C. Williams earned grades of 1. Wakefield had the highest portion of 1s in the county -- 26 percent of the 443 exams given -- but educators attribute that largely to the school's efforts to get large numbers of its low-income students -- 50 percent of the school's enrollment -- into AP courses and encouraging them to take at least some of the exams even if they are likely to get low scores.
A recent report by the National Center for Educational Accountability indicated that low-income students in Texas were more than three times as likely to graduate from a state college in five years if they took and failed an AP exam, compared to low-income students who did not take any AP courses in high school.
An analysis of Woodlawn's Challenge Index ranking indicates that the school's AP program is so strong it would still be No. 1 on the regional list even if those students who purposely failed exams were not counted in the final AP participation figures. If, for instance, only 10 percent of the exams graded 1 at Woodlawn were counted, matching the Yorktown percentage of 1s, that would reduce the number of exams credited to the school from 431 to 380. When divided by the number of graduating seniors, 75, that would bring its Challenge Index rating down to 5.067, still ahead of the No. 2 school in the region, Richard Montgomery in Montgomery County, which had a rating of 5.029.
College-level courses have become very popular in Washington area schools because selective colleges like to see them on applications, and high scores can bring college credit. As it did last year, Arlington ranked second among all 23 local school districts in college test participation, with an average county-wide rating of 3.271. The No. 1 district was Falls Church, which has just one small high school with a very active IB program and a rating of 4.098.
In both Arlington and Falls Church, as well as Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William, Fauquier and Clarke counties, and the city of Manassas, AP and IB test fees are largely paid by the schools and students are required to take the tests. In most of the rest of the country, taking the AP tests is optional, and AP and IB students' class grades are decided by their teachers long before the test results are returned in midsummer.
Kathleen Wills, director of planning and evaluation for Arlington County public schools, said Woodlawn's students seem to be making decisions that make sense for them and fit the school's culture.
The students "are enrolling in courses that either are not especially strong suits for them, or that there's a limit to how many courses that students can invest in enough to earn higher scores."
Some students may be taking more AP courses than they can handle, Haltiwanger said, and "we may counsel students to consider other choices, but in the end the student makes the decision."