Making AP Work for Students
Thursday, December 15, 2005
When math teacher John Glaze came to West Potomac High School in 1999, the school, like all the others in Fairfax County, was trying to adjust to an unusual -- and seemingly troublesome -- decision by the county School Board the year before.
The board had decided that any student who wanted to take a high school honors or college-level course could do so. The only prerequisite was a desire to work hard.
The School Board also said that anyone taking difficult Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses had to take the special AP and IB exams written and scored by independent experts and administered in May. The number of exams nearly doubled, and passing rates on those college-level tests dropped sharply. In 1998, 75 percent of students taking AP tests in the county received passing scores. In 1999, that figure was only 62 percent.
But the latest Washington Post Challenge Index, released today, shows that Fairfax has since rebounded from that low point, with more AP and IB tests than ever and a rising passing rate. The index shows Fairfax has the highest AP and IB participation rate of any large district in the area, and all of its schools rank in the top 5 percent nationally in this measure.
The Post has been reporting annually on the Challenge Index ratings of local high schools since 1998. The index provides a rating for each school (see chart at left) by dividing the number of college-level tests taken by all students at each school by the number of graduating seniors.
At West Potomac in 1999, Glaze had agreed to teach AP calculus, just as he had at his previous school, Wilson High in Northwest Washington. It was probably the most difficult course offered in U.S. high schools, and the results at West Potomac the previous school year had not been good. Glaze was told that at least 50 students had taken the exam, but only seven had earned passing scores.
Enrollment in Glaze's AP calculus BC, the more difficult of the two AP calculus courses, was low, but he announced that his door was open to anyone who wanted to take it. He began to look for ways to make sure his students had enough time and support to master the material. This year, he had 16 students take the exam, and 15 passed.
The same resurgence has occurred at the school itself. In 1999, West Potomac gave 705 AP tests, but only 48 percent received a passing grade. This year, the school gave more AP tests, 750, and had a passing rate of 68 percent. In the county as a whole, the AP passing rate is up to 67 percent, even though 6,736 more AP exams were given this year than in 1999.
"I applaud and support a policy that opens the door to all students," Glaze said.
West Potomac's principal, Rima Vesilind, said her teachers have found many ways to raise the level of achievement on the three-hour AP tests. "They hold extra Saturday classes or after-school and lunchtime sessions to make sure their students understand the material," she said.
Dave Goldfarb, the school's AP coordinator, whose AP world history students had a 91 percent passing rate this year, said a school "can build success in AP courses by starting early, building into its program a focus on developing students' abilities in reading, writing and critical thinking in different classes throughout the school."
To better measure efforts to improve mastery of the college-level material, this year the College Board notified high schools for the first time what percentage of their graduating seniors had a score of at least 3, the equivalent of a college C-plus, on at least one of the five-point AP tests.