Tell Me How a College-Level Workload Affects Your Life

By Jay Mathews
Thursday, November 9, 2006

I need your help. The Washington Post will be publishing next month its ninth annual rankings of Washington area public high schools. The list is based on a formula called the Challenge Index, which is designed to show which schools are trying hardest to prepare average students for college by encouraging them to take college-level courses and tests.

The results are always interesting, but they don't tell us nearly enough about what these demanding courses and tests are doing to the lives of students, parents and teachers. I would like you to e-mail me at and tell me how Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate are affecting your school, and you. Are these college classes well-taught? Is the workload too much? Do students get extra time to learn the material? What do students think of these high school experiences after they arrive at college?

I am collecting the Challenge Index data now. The early returns indicate our local schools will set a record for the number of AP and IB tests being given. In fact, there appears to be no other region in the country that has as high a level of participation in college-level courses and tests.

That, I think, is a good thing. The Washington area is going to look good on most educational measures because it has some of the highest levels of parental income and education. All the research shows that students who come from affluent families with parents who went to college do better in school than students without those factors. But most of our school districts have done something most other U.S. districts have not done. Our districts have opened these challenging courses to all students, not just to those with affluent, well-educated parents. And they have prepared many students from disadvantaged homes so well that they are passing these college-level tests and not only earning college credit but also getting a useful sense of how to handle the heavy reading lists and long final exams that make college, for many students, such a difficult adjustment.

Two large studies in California and Texas have shown that good grades on the three-hour AP tests correlate with higher graduation rates in college. I have interviewed hundreds of AP and IB teachers and students over the past 20 years. They almost all say that the courses and tests are the best academic experiences their high schools have to offer, and they recommend that more high schools use them.

Washington area educators have taken that advice to heart. The amount of college-level teaching in high schools here is unprecedented. Remember, I am talking about public schools. Private schools here and in the rest of the country have been full of AP and IB courses for many years, but the explosive growth in public school use of these challenging courses here is new.

The Challenge Index gives a rating for each school. It is calculated by counting the number of AP, IB or other college-level exams taken in May and dividing by the number of seniors graduating from the school in June. I count all AP and IB tests, including those taken by juniors and sophomores and in some cases even high school freshmen.

When I started doing this in 1998, I concluded that a good target for a high school was a rating of 1.000 -- giving as many college-level tests as it has graduating seniors. Not all students in high school take AP or IB, but if half of the students at a school did so, and each took one AP or IB course and test in the junior year and one AP or IB course and test in the senior year, the school would get a 1.000 rating.

Newsweek magazine publishes a national version of this list called "America's Best High Schools." It lists every public high school in the country with rating of 1.000 or better. The 2005 Newsweek list had 1,250 schools. That seems like a lot, but it is less than 5 percent of all U.S. public high schools.

But in the Washington area, the situation was very different. Sixty-five percent of the 174 public schools were rated at 1.000 or above. That is 113 schools, making up nearly 10 percent of the national list, though this region has only about 2 percent of the national population. Of the 29 school districts in the region, 21 had district-wide averages over 1.000. Six of them -- the cities of Falls Church and Winchester, and the counties of Arlington, Fairfax, Montgomery and Clarke -- averaged over 2.000.

Because of this, most of our schools are quite different from schools in the rest of the country. Have you noticed any effects? What are they? Each school and each district handles its college-level courses and tests differently, so remember to identify your school. We will include some of your comments in the article that will run with the Challenge Index list in the Extra in December.

Please send responses -- along with your name, e-mail or postal address and phone number -- to Extra Credit, The Washington Post, 51 Monroe St., Suite 500, Rockville, Md. 20850. Or

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