D.C. public high schools sharply increased the number of college-level courses offered last year after research continued to show that such challenging programs gave students an important key to succeeding in college, according to The Washington Post's annual Challenge Index.
The city's public schools showed the greatest increase in accelerated programs in the last three years, but Washington remains behind most other area districts in what has become one of the strongest regions in the country for the advanced programs.
The number of Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) tests given in D.C. schools increased 17 percent in 2004, to 1,693. D.C. officials said their efforts to boost the number of AP courses in each school were paying off.
"The data for the AP courses and exams show some progress, but they also show that there is considerable room for improvement," said a D.C. report on its program to prepare students for college.
The report noted modest increases for most ethnic groups in the percentage of students passing the three-hour AP tests. "However, among the district's largest population, black students, the number of passing scores declined by 27 percent in 2003-2004," the report said. "This decline occurred even though participation among black students increased by 5 percent."
Test statistics are broken down by ethnic group because the originator of the exam traditionally seeks background information about test takers to facilitate research on raising achievement.
Some critics say that the AP tests demand too much memorization of facts and that teenagers are creating too much stress for themselves by taking several AP courses at once to impress colleges. But many D.C. educators say that is a problem for suburban schools, while in the city there aren't nearly enough students in AP programs.
As it did last year, Wilson High School in Northwest showed the greatest improvement in AP test participation. It went from 553 tests last year to 666 tests this year, which raised its Challenge Index rating to 1.908, 38th out of 163 schools in the area and high enough to put it in the top 3 percent of all schools nationwide.
The top ranking in the city went to Banneker, a magnet school in Northwest Washington. It again placed eighth in the region, with a rating of 3.432, the highest in the school's history. Banneker this year became the first public school in the District to give IB tests, offering 162 AP exams and 140 IB exams. Fourteen of the school's 23 IB students earned the full IB diploma.
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.
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.
The 20 IB schools in the Washington area did particularly well in 2004, with five of them -- Richard Montgomery and Bethesda-Chevy Chase in Montgomery County, George Mason in Falls Church, Washington-Lee in Arlington and Banneker in the District -- in the Challenge Index top 10.
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. They are graded by people rather than by 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 the percentage of students passing 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.
A recent report by the National Center for Educational Accountability indicated that African American, Hispanic and low-income students in Texas were three times as likely to graduate from a state college in five years if they took and failed an AP exam as were students in those groups who did not take AP classes.
At Cardozo High, a Northwest school where 82 percent of students qualify for federal lunch subsidies, the number of AP tests has risen from 30 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. Two of those 12 passing scores belonged to graduating senior Jamila Thompson, who passed four AP tests while at Cardozo -- including two in her junior year -- and was named an AP Scholar. Seven D.C. schools this year had no students passing an AP test.
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, giving at least as many AP and IB tests as they have graduating 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 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 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.
Fairfax County schools 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 university admissions deans say is invaluable for incoming college freshmen.
Among the large number of low-income students in the District, many have their test fees paid by federal funds and other sources. The D.C. schools report said 43.8 percent of test takers qualified for the AP Test Fee Assistance program. Sixty-seven percent of AP students took the final exams, which unlike in many suburban school systems remain optional in the District.
In the District, 61 percent of the AP test takers were female and 50 percent were African American, the D.C. schools report said.