Advanced Courses Gain Ground in High Schools

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By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 29, 2005

The D.C. public school system's college-level test participation rate increased slightly in 2005, with the largest high school, Wilson, making the greatest gain, according to The Washington Post Challenge Index survey of area schools.

The participation rate for D.C. schools, calculated as the number of college-level tests per graduating senior, went from 0.776 in 2004 to 0.820 in 2005, an increase of almost 6 percent.

Wilson High in Northwest went from 666 to 775 Advanced Placement tests, raising its rating on the Challenge Index to 2.541, the highest ever attained by the school. It achieved the higher percentage without any decline in the passing rate on the AP tests, which remained at 51 percent.

Wilson Principal Stephen Tarason said the feat was the result of continued efforts to lure more students into the AP courses and tests, which can result in college credit and improve a student's chances of graduating from college. At the same time, teachers found extra time for students to prepare. "The teachers are just outstanding, they are really dedicated," said Tarason, describing study sessions at lunchtime and after school.

Alex Wilson, director of academic development at Wilson, said he was particularly gratified that 11 teachers received special AP training in the past year. He said he thought the school was succeeding in helping many students overcome the psychological barrier of thinking they were not good enough to try an AP course.

The Washington Post has been reporting the Challenge Index ratings of local high schools since 1998. The index provides a rating for each school by dividing the number of college-level tests taken by all students at each school by the number of graduating seniors.

Although only 5 percent of U.S. high schools have ratings of 1.000 or higher, which means they gave at least as many college-level tests as they have graduating seniors, 65 percent of public schools in the Washington area have achieved that level because of the region's high average family incomes, education levels and strong focus on college admission.

Three D.C. schools beside Wilson have reached the 1.000 mark -- Banneker, School Without Walls and a charter school, the Washington Math Science Tech. Banneker has the AP program and another college-level program popular in the Washington area, International Baccalaureate.

The College Board notified high schools for the first time this year what percentage of all 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 in high school. The College Board calls this its "equity and excellence" rating. AP Executive Director Trevor Packerhas said the rating is designed to encourage schools to spread AP opportunities across the student population and to focus on preparing those students well for the three-hour exams in more than 30 subjects. Packer said the College Board will continue to encourage schools to submit their annual enrollment counts, which it needs to calculate the equity and excellence rating.

Equity and excellence ratings were not available for Banneker and School Without Walls because their students take many college-level tests outside the AP system. But for those D.C. schools that use just AP, the highest equity and excellence rating was at Wilson, with 28.8 percent of its seniors getting a passing grade on an AP test, closely followed by the Duke Ellington School of the Arts with 22.5 percent and Bell Multicultural High School with 20.9 percent. Six D.C. schools -- Anacostia, Eastern, Ballou, Spingarn, Dunbar and Woodson -- had ratings of zero percent because none of their graduating seniors this year had passed an AP test.

If the Post had ranked Washington area schools by equity and excellence ratings this year, they would have fallen in roughly the same order as they did on the Challenge Index list, which does not consider how well students did on the tests. But there were several exceptions. Annandale High School in Fairfax County, for instance, ranked 88th on the Challenge Index list but had an equity and excellence percentage, 38.1 percent, that was higher than those of 44 of the schools ranked above it.

The top 10 local schools ranked by equity and excellence, with their Challenge Index ranks in parentheses, were:


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