Wheaton High School in Silver Spring has more than its share of low-income students. Because of that, it has tended to lag behind other Montgomery County schools in most academic measures, including student participation in college-level courses and tests.
But four years ago, the school's staff members decided that Wheaton had as much of an opportunity as any school to give its students the Advanced Placement (AP) courses they needed. "It was a leap of faith based on our belief that students benefit from experience with rigorous course work," said Shauna Brown, the school's AP and honors support coordinator.
This year, according to The Washington Post's annual Challenge Index, the effort has paid off in an impressive way. Wheaton increased its AP participation rate more than any other school in the county and achieved an index rating of 1.5744, putting it in the top 4 percent of U.S. schools.
"When we began to implement these changes, the school offered only five different AP courses from which to choose," Wheaton Principal George Arlotto said. "Currently we offer 17 such classes. Our data indicate that our teachers are teaching well and making it work and that our students can do it and are proving to themselves and to the community at large that they can do it."
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 Montgomery County educators have embraced the program. With Wheaton's great leap in testing, Montgomery joins Fairfax County as the largest districts in the region, and probably in the country, to have every one of their high schools achieve a Challenge Index rating of 1.000. That means each school gives at least as many college-level tests each year as it has graduating seniors, a goal reached by only 5 percent of the 25,000 high schools in the country.
Montgomery County schools as a whole increased the number of AP, International Baccalaureate (IB) and other college-level tests given this year by 12 percent, to a total of 20,358. Its Challenge Index rating of 2.318 earned it fifth place among the area's 23 districts, just behind Fairfax and the much smaller districts of Falls Church City and Arlington and Clarke counties.
Frederick County increased its college-level tests by 15 percent and ranked 11th in the region with an average rating of 1.184. The Frederick school with the greatest gain in 2004 was Middletown High School, which went from 401 to 532 AP tests in just one year.
Middletown Principal Debra Munk said the school's new APEX program, in which 30 freshmen are selected each year to eventually graduate with six AP courses and a philosophy seminar, inspired students not in the program to raise the level of their studies. "Students now come into my office asking my opinion about the six AP classes they should take rather than whether or not they should take any AP," Munk said.
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 started 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 take as long as five hours, and IB students also write a 4,000-word paper to receive a full IB diploma.
Middletown High School's new APEX program is, in a way, an AP version of IB because the IB diploma also requires six major IB courses and a philosophy course called Theory of Knowledge.
The Challenge Index 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 the research. Principals in Montgomery and Frederick counties have accepted the advice of experts who say struggling in a college-level course and failing the exam is better than not taking the course and test. A recent study of 70,000 Texas college students shows that those who had taken and failed an AP test in high school were two or three times more likely to graduate in five years than students who had not taken AP at all.
Washington area schools are much more likely to encourage students to take college-level courses than schools elsewhere in the country. This year, a record 61 percent of the region's public schools achieved the 1.000 mark on the Challenge Index.
Five IB schools -- Richard Montgomery and Bethesda-Chevy Chase in Montgomery County, George Mason in Falls Church, Washington-Lee in Arlington and Banneker in the District -- rank in the Challenge Index top 10 this year. Springbrook High School in Montgomery County also has a strong IB program and placed 26th on the list.
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 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 very low percentages of low-income students. J.E.B. Stuart High School in Fairfax County, where 53 percent of the students come from low-income families, does better than both, with a rating of 1.802.
At Wheaton High, 38 percent of the students come from low-income families, but the school's educators say that should not be a barrier to what they want to do.
Dave Shaffner, an AP world history teacher, noted the school's rating has jumped from 0.244 in 2000 to 1.574 this year. "This confirms my belief that the doors of opportunity should not be blocked by our narrow conceptions of who can be successful," he said.