Renee Belisle takes all the Advanced Placement classes she can. So do all her friends, and so does everyone else at Severna Park High School with visions of Georgetown or Dartmouth or Princeton.
AP participation has more than doubled in three years in the Anne Arundel County school district, and it has risen in all 23 districts in the Washington area, according to school officials. The International Baccalaureate, the AP's college-preparatory rival, also has arrived in Anne Arundel and propagated across the region in the same span.
_____Challenge Index 2004_____
Special Report: Reporter Jay Mathews compares how hard Washington area schools are trying to prepare their students for college.
That is a remarkable pace of change -- a bit too fast, in the minds of some parents and teachers.
"This is a college-level course. These are 10th-graders," said Terra Ziporyn Snider, mother of two students at Severna Park High, where many enter the AP track as sophomores.
Superintendents are making AP and IB participation a cornerstone of their educational plans. Area school districts are recruiting thousands of students into college-level classes, sending letters to their homes, even paying for their tests, to boost course enrollment and diversify classrooms.
Many students, parents and educators seem pleased with the result: vast armies of AP and IB scholars, staggering increases in AP credits and a satisfying sense that the high school community has moved up a notch. The Washington Post, with its Challenge Index, has rated area schools since 1998 on their participation in AP and IB.
But there is a backlash. Some AP teachers complain of larger classes, lower standards and falling pass rates on the exams. Teachers in lower academic tracks, such as traditional honors programs, cite plunging enrollment and a brain drain. Students outside the AP/IB track bemoan a dual grading system that typically awards an extra grade point to everyone in an AP or IB class.
"There definitely is a kind of stigma attached to not being in AP," said Belisle, a senior who is taking four Advanced Placement courses this year. "And that's exactly why I've ended up taking so many AP classes."
The complaints share a theme: High schools seem to be polarizing into two camps, the academic haves and have-nots. AP and IB, once the pinnacle of secondary-school achievement, are now considered obligatory for virtually every student with designs on a high class rank or acceptance to a competitive college. When faced with a choice, students largely eschew traditional honors programs, "above-average" tracks and anything else that is not AP or IB.
"We're turning into a two-tiered system: You're either advanced, or you're remedial. There's no room for anyone in between," said Snider, of Severna Park. "That middle level is being squeezed out."
Tom Shaffer, a history teacher in Charles County, retired in the middle of the 2002-03 school year in anger over the school system's emphasis on AP. Charles's AP program is almost four times the size it was in 2001.
Shaffer was accustomed to teaching four or five honors classes a day and a single class of AP. By the time he left, the honors classes had dwindled to one, filled, in his view, with second-rate students.
"Honors is just a joke," said Shaffer, who has publicly disputed the AP expansion campaign of Charles County Superintendent James E. Richmond.
Richmond, joined by Anne Arundel Superintendent Eric J. Smith and their counterparts in Fairfax, Montgomery, Manassas and several other school systems, is pushing AP and IB as a way to steer more students -- particularly more minority students -- to four-year colleges. Research suggests that students who take college-level classes in high school are more likely to complete college.
Meade High School, an austere campus within Fort Meade in Anne Arundel, serves a diverse population: One-third of the students come from the military installation, one-third from subsidized housing and one-third from the surrounding rural-suburban sprawl. Roughly half the students are black.
Meade students took 96 Advanced Placement tests in the 2001-02 school year, before the AP push. Last year, the school administered 300 AP exams.
"The first year I taught this course, I had 14 students total," said Kara Wood, an AP history teacher in her sixth year at Meade High. This year, she has 55 students, "probably the best group I've ever had," she said.
What's driving students into AP and IB study is a conviction that their college plans are at stake.
Most students believe it statistically impossible to become valedictorian without a full load of AP or IB courses. More important, they sense colleges won't even consider their application unless they're already doing college-level work. Both hunches are at least partly correct.
A student who takes AP or IB classes, gets good grades and receives a bonus for each course is bound to outperform everyone else. The bonus system typically dispenses a point for AP or IB and a half-point for honors.
Anne Arundel County school board member Paul G. Rudolph said he won't support an extra grade point for IB classes, a decision facing the board this month. There has been talk of naming two valedictorians at IB schools.
The superintendents know these and other complaints well and have ready responses to each one.
AP watered down? True, the pass rate on AP tests tends to dip as participation rises, they say. But research suggests that even taking the class and failing the exam will leave most students better prepared for college.
The exam itself is an unchanging standard that tends to protect the integrity of the course. Some districts, including Fairfax and Loudoun counties, pay for all or most exams and require students to take them, to keep both students and teachers fully engaged.
Honors classes losing their luster? Despite the comments of some teachers and parents, district leaders in Anne Arundel and Charles counties, with their fast-growing AP programs, say they don't consider that a problem. Fairfax County, with its massive AP program, averts this complaint by not tracking students below the AP level.
"And we did that on purpose because we could see what would happen," said Bernie Glaze, director of AP in Fairfax County.
Colleges don't require AP or IB in the same way that most require the SAT or ACT. But the clear message, sent down from college admissions officers to guidance counselors to seniors, is that colleges favor students who take the most rigorous coursework available.
"Our guidance counselors say, 'Take the harder classes because colleges will notice that,' " said Rachel Fichthorn, a senior at Liberty High School in the Fauquier County school district, which has nearly doubled AP participation since 2001. "All of my friends basically are taking AP classes, and taking as many as they possibly can."
Thirty, 20 or even 10 years ago, students could expect admission to a good college with a strong transcript of accelerated classes that did not include AP or IB.
Some students can still get into competitive colleges without college-level work on their résumé, particularly if they're from schools that offer little or no AP or IB study. Such places still exist.
But two-thirds of students admitted to Georgetown University this year arrived with AP credit, meaning they'd taken and passed at least one exam.
Competitive colleges "don't want to look at kids who have fewer than five or six AP courses," said Glaze, of Fairfax County. "We don't have any control over that."
Charles A. Deacon, dean of undergraduate admissions at Georgetown, concurs that AP or IB study is an important factor in admissions. He acknowledged that it's more important now than in the recent past. Yet he cautioned: "The idea that we're somehow sitting here counting up the number of courses is simply not true."