National surveys show that U.S. high schoolers on average spend no more than an hour a day on homework but three hours watching television or playing with computers. At Woodson and George Mason, most students smirk at the idea of such a light school load.
According to The Washington Post's annual Challenge Index ratings, George Mason is No. 4 and Woodson No. 6 in the region as measured by their students' participation in college-level courses and tests. Nationally, they rank among the top two dozen public schools. At George Mason and Woodson, about 70 percent of students take at least one college-level course, which is more than twice the national average.
Richard Peloquin, a teacher of 20th-century history in the International Baccalaureate program at George Mason High, collects papers from seniors Tania Andrade, right, and Tatiana Shevchenko. Peloquin finds teaching IB "very stimulating and rewarding."
(Photos Above And On Cover, At Right, James M. Thresher -- The W)
_____Challenge Index_____ • Jay Mathews ranks Washington area public schools in the 2004 Challenge Index.
What is most interesting about the two schools to many education specialists is that they have achieved the same impressive results with two different programs , Advanced Placement (AP) at Woodson and International Baccalaureate (IB) at George Mason. At times in Fairfax County and Falls Church, parents and students have argued bitterly over whether AP or IB would be better for their schools. In 1999, for instance, a committee of teachers, parents and students at Woodson voted 15 to 10 to reject a planned IB program because it meant losing AP.
But George Mason's and Woodson's results seem to suggest that either program, if done right, is fine.
Students in AP "bring their critical thinking skills and disciplined approach to study in all their classes and raise the discussion and often general performance levels," said Susan H. Shue, who teaches AP government and politics to seniors at Woodson.
Richard Peloquin, who teaches IB 20th-century history at George Mason, said, "To engage in higher-level thinking with my students on a daily level is very stimulating and rewarding."
About 14,000 American schools have AP and about 450 have IB, much larger numbers than specialists expected when the programs began. AP was initiated by the College Board in 1956 as a program for a few elite public and private high schools, at which seniors and juniors were given college credit for some high-level courses so they would not be bored by having to cover the same material in college. IB, the brainchild of teachers at the International School of Geneva, started in 1968 as a high-level standard curriculum for schools that catered to the children of diplomats and international business executives.
But in the 1980s and 1990s, many average and below-average schools in the United States -- such as Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, portrayed in the movie "Stand and Deliver" -- found that the programs helped their students, too.
New research by the National Center for Educational Accountability shows that even students who fail AP examinations in high school are twice as likely to graduate from college in five years as students who never try AP. Hispanic and African American students are three times as likely to graduate from college in five years if they try AP. Other research shows similar results for students who took IB courses.
No school districts responded to the need for college-level courses more enthusiastically than Falls Church and Fairfax County. Of the county's 24 high schools, seven use mostly IB courses; 16, including Woodson, use AP; and one, the 2,842-student Robinson Secondary School, offers large doses of both. The Falls Church district has just one high school, George Mason, which is mostly an IB school. All 25 schools in Fairfax and Falls Church, according to The Post's Challenge Index, have ratings of at least 1.000, meaning they give as many college-level tests as they have graduating seniors. Only 5 percent of schools nationwide achieve this level of participation.
Robert Elliott, principal of Woodson, said these achievements are the result of hard work. "Students taking their first AP course sometimes experience the need to adjust to the pace," he said. Shue has created a summer program to prepare students for the challenge, he said, "but even with this, our teachers and counselors work with students the first few weeks to get them over the hump."
In most high schools, AP courses are reserved for 11th- and 12th-graders, but at Woodson, "almost half of our tenth-graders take an AP course and . . . do very well on the AP examination," Elliott said.
Robert W. Snee, who was an IB teacher for 11 years before taking over as George Mason's principal in 1992, said the program is a "rising tide lifting all boats." His school has 40 IB courses -- "in every department where an IB curriculum can exist," he said. "The experience of teaching an IB class affects the way a teacher approaches his or her other classes, and the tendency is to add more rigor to those classes and to apply some of the same types of assessments. Those are changes for the better."
Hannah McBride, a senior at Woodson, said getting college credit in high school "enables me to skip some basic, beginner college courses" when she arrives at the university of her choice. "AP classes have saved me time and money," she said.
Andrew Roller, a senior at George Mason, said "the IB program has taught me how to manage my work better. I have learned to prioritize work and have developed healthy work schedules so that I prevent myself from procrastinating and burning out."
Both programs have their downsides, students said. Sean Douglass, a Woodson senior, said "despite these fantastic teachers' dedication to the program, they lose some of their natural enthusiasm and ability to think outside the box because they feel as if they are forced to 'teach to the test.'
"Additionally, some of the teachers I've spoken with dislike the strictness of the AP curriculum because it inhibits creativity and does not allow them to have fun with the class."
Students and parents at George Mason complained that it is harder to get college credit for IB courses than for AP courses because the international program is smaller and less familiar to colleges.
Usually students can get credits if they earn the full IB diploma, which includes six college-level exams plus a 4,000-word paper. But for individual courses, colleges often will give credit for the AP version but not for the very similar IB version, with no other reason than that is their policy.
"It is really sad to note the discrimination IB students are faced with against AP students," Krish and Indi Namboodiri , parents of recent George Mason graduate Arya Namboodiri, said in an e-mail. "All American universities still consider IB students as 'foreign' and hence not equal."
But guidance counselors at both schools said IB and AP students share a great advantage when seeking admission to selective colleges, who want students that have taken the most demanding courses.
And in the course of pursuing those college goals, both high schools become better places to learn and better places to augment skills as a teacher, said students and teachers.
"Teaching the IB courses has strengthened my knowledge of the subject matter," said Mary McDowell, Science Department chairwoman and biology teacher at George Mason. "I don't think I always realized before how important a certain concept might be in a more advanced course of study."
Paula Spencer, an AP American history teacher at Woodson, said that through the AP network, "we exchange books, readings, teaching techniques and ideas, which have helped me enrich the lessons in my classroom."