Howard County increased the number of college-level tests being given in its high schools by 16 percent this year, part of a steady growth in efforts to encourage college preparation throughout the Washington area.
According to The Washington Post's annual Challenge Index, Howard for the first time averaged more college-level Advanced Placement (AP) tests in a year than it had graduating seniors. That puts it above the 1.000 mark on the Challenge Index scale, a level of college-test participation that few U.S. school districts have reached.
Much of Howard's strong showing, however, rested on the achievements of three high schools, Centennial, Mount Hebron and River Hill. Centennial, with a rating of 2.334, placed 28th in the region. All three schools surpassed the 1.000 mark, which is achieved by only 5 percent of U.S. schools.
Howard's seven other high schools failed to reach the 1.000 mark. By comparison, in neighboring Montgomery County, all 23 of its high schools reached 1.000 for the first time. Howard County's 11th high school, Reservoir high, was not rated in the index because it opened just two years ago.
For the first time, the index includes Carroll County, Md., schools, which ranked at the bottom of 23 Washington area districts, with an average rating of 0.500.
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 AP, along with the similar International Baccalaureate (IB) program, has 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.
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 Challenge Index, a record 61 percent of Washington region schools reached that mark.
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, 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.
The Challenge Index does not use the percentage of students who pass AP and IB tests because reporting passing rates would reward the majority of high schools nationally that won't let B and C students take the courses and tests.