Above and Beyond Standard Testing

IB history test at Richard Montgomery High School
Gittel Goodman, 18, left, Stephen Berger, 17, Anita Ravishankar, 18, and Steven Levitus, 18, review before an IB history test at Richard Montgomery High School. (Nikki Kahn - The Washington Post)
By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 21, 2005

Scores of teenagers sprawled on the floor of a yellow-walled, overheated corridor of Richard Montgomery High School last week. They were minutes from a crucial exam.

Which exam? That depended on the student.

Some would go down the hall to Advanced Placement psychology. Others would be in the cafeteria taking International Baccalaureate higher-level history.

The psychology test would last nearly three hours. The history test would last about the same, until 4:15 p.m., and then resume the next morning for another three hours.

This month Richard Montgomery, an otherwise ordinary-looking school behind a furniture store in Rockville, will give about 2,400 IB and AP college-level exams in dozens of subjects, buffing its reputation as one of the nation's most test-driven public schools.

Stephen Berger, sitting in the corridor conferring with his friends, will, like many of the school's students, have taken eight of them.

"I don't know if you can totally understand it unless you have actually experienced it," Berger, 17, said of the school's traditional May frenzy.

And the testing doesn't end there. Many Richard Montgomery juniors took the SAT on May 7, and many more, particularly sophomores and juniors, will take Maryland High School Assessment tests next week.

The growing debate over standardized testing in U.S. schools usually focuses on state tests in reading, writing and math required of all students in third through eighth grade under the No Child Left Behind Act. But there are different and far more demanding tests consuming such schools as Richard Montgomery, turning them each May into testing factories: AP, IB and other exams taken voluntarily by students hoping to earn college credit.

Last year students in the school's IB magnet program, which has 100 students in each grade, took 526 IB tests in May. They and hundreds more students not in the IB program took 1,689 AP tests that month.

Anita Ravishankar, an IB magnet student who lives near Germantown, signed up for college-level exams in calculus, English, physics, psychology, history and Spanish. On the day of her AP psychology test, she inspected a bump on her finger, the result of too much gripping of the Pilot G-2 pen she uses for exam writing. She said she tried to get some sleep in April before the school became wall-to-wall tests, but she had to prepare a study guide to Hitler and Stalin for her European history class, "and that was an all-nighter."

In the Washington area, only Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County gives more college-level exams than Richard Montgomery. Most U.S. schools have just IB or just AP, but the Rockville school has both, and that complicates the schedule, forcing unusual test times such as Berger's 6:30 to 8:45 a.m. IB English test on May 9 or Ravishankar's 6:30 to 9:45 a.m. IB Spanish test May 13.

Richard Montgomery took the first step toward becoming a testing machine in 1987, when the school board agreed to create the IB magnet program and invite students from across the county to participate. The school had only 1,200 students, and educators feared that was not enough to support a good curriculum with many electives. They also wanted to change the image in some minds that the school was not at the top academically.

Eugene Thirolf, a Justice Department attorney and PTA activist who promoted the change, saw his three children, Julie, Kate and Jack, participate in the IB program. The idea, he said, was to attract to the Rockville campus the kind of students "who hung out at the library." But in fact, he said, the students who came were those "who just wanted to go 100 miles an hour in their education."

Isadora Paymer, the parent of a Richard Montgomery sophomore, said her son will be taking three IB courses next year, meaning additional stress for their entire family. "These courses are very challenging," Paymer said.

"This is a lot different and a lot harder than the high school I went to," she said. "Some kids are, in addition to the AP tests, taking SAT II tests and of course the PSAT and SAT in junior year."

Sometimes the first exam book is cracked open as early as 6:30 a.m. and the last exam is not finished until 5 p.m. during Richard Montgomery's May Madness. Some think that is too much, but each year more students sign up for more of the college-level courses and tests. "I tell people we believe in opening doors for students," said Moreno Carrasco, principal of the Montgomery County school, which has about 2,000 students, most of them minorities.

"You have to believe that students are capable of performing at higher levels," Carrasco said. "And the only way we would know is by putting them in these courses."

Though much of the pressure to take the college-level courses is created by ambitious students competing with each other, Thirolf said, schools have to find a way to curb the frenzy. "I think to some extent, the administration and the faculty need to exercise some restraint on these Indianapolis 500 automobiles," he said.

In the corridor outside the cafeteria at Richard Montgomery, students exchanged a few last tips before getting up and heading for their designated test rooms. Asked if he was feeling any strain, Berger flexed his wrist and mentioned hand cramps. "After I have written my third or fourth exam, I begin to feel it," he said.

Danielle Carpenter, a senior who is not in the IB program, waited to take the AP psychology test. She said she saw no problem with having taken so many AP tests -- three in her junior year. "I wanted to take as many of the best classes as I could," she said.

IB coordinator Carol Solomon said school counselors try to avoid over-scheduling students, and teachers try to help with lunchtime and Saturday coaching sessions. Many students come back saying their freshman year in college was a breeze compared with Richard Montgomery.

But parents still worry and wonder if May has to be quite so difficult.

George Margolies, staff director for the county school board and a former Richard Montgomery PTA co-president, said his younger daughter, Lisa, saw the stress her older sister, Janis, endured in the IB program and decided not to follow her lead. Yet, he recalled, Lisa still took at least four AP courses.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company