AP Program In Loudoun Remains Strong

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 14, 2006

Loudoun County schools had a 49 percent increase in Advanced Placement tests this year, as the county continued to build one of the strongest college-level test programs in the country, according to The Washington Post's annual Challenge Index list of area high schools.

The Washington region has the nation's heaviest concentration of AP and International Baccalaureate testing. So even with Loudoun's sharp increase in AP testing, it ranked just seventh among 28 local school districts on The Post's list.

Fauquier County placed 19th among the 28 school districts. But its rating, like Loudoun's, was much higher than those of most U.S. school districts.

Eight of Loudoun's high schools rank in the top 2 percent of all U.S. public schools as measured by the Challenge Index, which assesses college-level test participation. Two other Loudoun high schools, Briar Woods and Freedom, are likely to rank as high when each has a full senior class and can qualify for the list.

One of the newest county high schools, Dominion, outranked the other Loudoun schools on the list and had the 29th highest rating in the area. Just behind it was Potomac Falls at No. 30.

A school's rating on the Challenge Index is the number of college-level tests it gives annually divided by the number of graduating seniors.

Among Loudoun schools, the largest increase in ratings was at Potomac Falls, which went from 2.023 in 2005 to 2.670 this year. That number will put Potomac Falls, along with several other Loudoun schools, in the top 1 percent of U.S. schools on Newsweek's "America's Best High Schools" list next year.

"I continually share data with principals about the number of students and the race of students taking AP classes each year, as well as the history of AP participation in their schools so that they can see the progress," said Sharon Ackerman, Loudoun's assistant superintendent for instruction.

"In other words, the goal to have virtually every Loudoun student leave high school with at least one AP class on his/her transcript is achievable in Loudoun," she said. "While we are pleased to see the overall increase in the aggregate, the opportunity for individual students to gain experience with college-level content is our ultimate goal."

Some educators have complained that the Challenge Index list does not show how well students performed on the exams. So this year, for the second time, the list reported what percentage of graduating seniors at each school had at least one passing grade on at least one AP test in high school. On this Equity and Excellence rate, as it is called by the College Board, the highest-ranking school in the county was Stone Bridge High, with a rate of 50.9 percent. Loudoun Valley was second with 44.1 percent. Dominion had a rate of 32.7 percent and Potomac Falls 36.7 percent.

The lowest Equity and Excellence rate in Loudoun County was at Park View High, 31.1 percent. In Fauquier County, which has two high schools, Fauquier High had a rate of 21.2 percent and Liberty High a rate of 14.9 percent. The national average was 14.8 percent.

The AP program, created by the College Board in 1955, and the IB program, begun in the late 1960s by international school teachers in Switzerland, were designed for the most exclusive and high-performing public and private high schools. The idea was that if students in high school could pass tests comparable to final exams in college introductory courses, they could save time and money by skipping those courses in college. The IB was also designed to give students living outside their home countries an exam that would qualify them for entrance to colleges around the world.

In the 1980s, both AP and IB teachers in the United States began to experiment with giving AP courses and tests to average students in schools that were average, and in some cases below-average. The successes -- such as Jaime Escalante's AP calculus course for low-income students at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles -- led more schools to adopt AP and IB.

Two large studies in California and Texas show that good scores on AP tests correlate to second-year college success or higher college graduation rates. But some scholars say this could result from the character of the students who do well in AP, not because of the AP experience. Other educators say that AP and IB give high school students a vital foretaste of the demands of college, making it more likely that those students will earn college degrees.

In the Washington area, Fairfax County raised AP test-taking to a new level in 1998 by announcing that it would pay the test fees for all students taking AP courses, as it was already doing for IB students. The number of AP tests in the county jumped 71 percent in a single year, and many other districts, including Loudoun, adopted the same policy.

The policy can be expensive. The College Board charges $83 for each AP test, although that figure is cut in half for low-income students, and there is federal money to pick up the rest of the cost, if necessary.

Advanced Placement has 37 courses and exams across 22 subject areas. A student who does well on the tests can often get college credit. Some critics of the Challenge Index say that jurisdictions' paying for the tests, as Loudoun does, gives an unfair advantage in the rankings to wealthy districts that can afford to do so. But successful AP teachers say that the final exams, which are usually three hours long and require analysis and critical thinking, are a vital part of the college experience and that students should be encouraged to take them.

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, attended by some Loudoun County students, would top both lists with a Challenge Index rating of 7.311 and an Equity and Excellence rate of 100 percent, but it is not included because it is a very selective school with an average SAT score of 1454. The list is designed to show which schools try hardest to challenge their average students, and Jefferson has no average students.

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