Frederick Douglass High School, like most other schools in Prince George's County, has lagged far behind in the Washington area's growing use of special courses and tests to prepare students for the academic demands of college.
Last year, however, Douglass Principal Monica Goldson said, the Upper Marlboro school decided to put a new emphasis on getting students into college-level courses and making sure they took the college-level tests. All students who enrolled in Advanced Placement (AP) courses at Douglass were told they would have to take the three-hour AP tests in May, and the school agreed to pay at least half of the $82 examination fee.
The result, according to The Washington Post's annual Challenge Index list, was the largest increase in AP test participation in the county in 2004.
Douglass more than doubled the number of AP tests given, from 61 to 157, and increased its index rating from 0.202 to 0.604.
"We are incredibly proud of our AP students for putting in the extra effort needed for AP classes, and anticipate continued improvement in both scores and the number of students taking the classes and tests," said Randy Hummel, an AP coordinator at the school.
The other AP coordinator, Jane P. Godwin, said, "The AP teachers are working hard with students and some are even attending workshops held by the College Board to improve their knowledge of teaching AP level courses."
Some critics of AP say the tests demand too much memorization of facts, and that students are putting too much stress on themselves by taking several AP courses at once to impress colleges. But those complaints are not heard often in Prince George's County.
Overall, county schools increased the number of college level AP and International Baccalaureate tests in 2004 by 5 percent, to 4,127. But, compared with the other districts ranked by the Challenge Index, it was only 22nd, with an average rating of 0.545, just above last-place Carroll County.
As usual, the highest-ranked Prince George's County school, by far, was Eleanor Roosevelt, a magnet school in Greenbelt. It had a rating of 1.289, down from its record 2003 rating of 1.522, but good enough to rank 81 out of 163 schools. The Washington area is probably the most competitive area in the country for AP and IB participation, and Eleanor Roosevelt's rating puts it among the top 5 percent of schools in the country.
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 that 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, depicted 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. It, too, has become popular in American public schools. Four Prince George's schools -- Central, Laurel, Parkdale and Suitland -- offer IB courses, as do 16 other public schools in the region.
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.
The Challenge Index intentionally ignores what percentage of students pass their AP and IB tests, because reporting passing rates would reward the majority of high schools nationally that only let their best students take the tests -- a bad idea, according to the research. Even schools with large numbers of low-income students have accepted the advice of AP experts that flunking the test is better than not taking it, and are encouraging more students to take the college-level courses and tests. Cardozo High School in the District has gone from 30 AP tests in 1999 to 129 this year, in a school where 82 percent of the students qualify for federal lunch subsidies. 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.
Seven District schools this year had no students passing an AP test. All Prince George's County schools appear to have some students passing the AP tests, although some of the passing rates have been as low as 5 percent. Goldson said Douglass High had 33 students with passing scores on their AP exams in May.
Washington area schools are much more likely to encourage students to take college level courses than schools elsewhere in the country. Nationally, only about 5 percent of public schools achieve a 1.000 rating, at least as many tests as seniors, on the Challenge Index, whereas this year a record 61 percent of the region's public schools achieved that mark.
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, similar to the policy changes made at Douglass High School last year. This gave many students a chance to take a three-hour college exam for the first time, an experience that admissions deans say is invaluable for people soon to be college freshmen.
Goldson said she hoped to increase the emphasis on college preparation even more this year at Douglass. "As far as we are concerned it is a win-win situation," she said. "Our students are taking college courses that will prepare them for their post-secondary experience, and if they receive a three or higher [on the five-point AP exam], the course may be used for college credit."