A Boost in High School Courses at College Level

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

Kay Barcus has more experience with Advanced Placement, and its alternatives, than most parents in Prince William County. Her two older children took introductory courses in college at about the same time her two younger children were taking AP courses, supposedly the equivalent of the same college courses, at Forest Park High School.

So what was the difference? "The high school child's course appears to be more difficult and more work," she said.

Prince William County schools were the first in the area to pay the test fees for AP courses in certain subjects, and they have the greatest variety of college-level courses. There are AP courses, International Baccalaureate courses, Cambridge Courses and community college courses, and, according to The Washington Post's latest Challenge Index, Prince William's effort to prepare students for higher education is still growing rapidly.

The county's college-level test participation rate climbed 25.1 percent in just the last year, according to the Challenge Index. Eight county high schools rank in the top 4 percent of all U.S. schools on that scale, and the remaining two schools, the newly built Battlefield and Freedom, should reach that level once they have full senior classes and can qualify for the list, the index data show.

Stafford County is also doing well, its index rating increasing 27.6 percent in the last year. North Stafford is the only county school that has not yet reached the benchmark of having at least as many college-level tests as graduating seniors. Osbourn High School in Manassas City and Manassas Park High School in Manassas Park reached that level a few years ago and this year had their highest Challenge Index ratings ever.

Prince William County parents are particularly enthusiastic about the teaching in the college-level programs. "The IB program has been challenging and wonderful," said Karen Woloszyn, whose son attends Gar-Field High School. "The teachers are not only great at what they do, but they go the extra mile to help in any way they can, even if that means working with him after school."

Sue Watts, the IB coordinator at Stonewall Jackson High School, said "many of our students come back from college each year and talk about how much IB prepared them for college."

Bonnie Trumbetic, whose 10th-grade daughter is taking two AP classes at Hylton High School, said the teachers have top credentials and "teach at this level not only because they have mastered the content but also because they want to work with these kids. Therefore, the AP students are not set up for failure but success."

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 could pass tests in high school comparable to final exams in college introductory courses, they could save time and money by skipping those courses when they got to college. The IB was also designed to give students living outside their home countries an exam that would qualify them for entrance to colleges all over the world.

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

Two large studies in California and Texas show that good scores on AP tests correlate with second-year college success or higher college graduation rates. But some scholars say this could be because of the character of the students who do well in AP, not because of the AP experience. Other educators say AP and IB provide a vital taste of college trauma in high school that makes it more likely they will earn their college degrees.

In the Washington area, Prince William County schools were the first to pay the fees for students taking AP or IB tests in core subjects. Fairfax County then announced it would pay the fees for all AP tests, as it was already doing for IB tests. Several other districts adopted the same policy.

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

Some educators have complained that the Challenge Index does not indicate how well students do on the tests. So The Post's Challenge Index has added a new statistic, the Equity and Excellence rate, to show which schools had the highest percentage of seniors passing at least one AP or IB test before graduation. In Prince William County, the highest Equity and Excellence rating was 39.1 percent, at Osbourn Park High School, and in Stafford County the highest was 26.4 percent, at Colonial Forge High School. The Equity and Excellence rate at Osbourn High was 22.8 percent and at Manassas Park High, 13.3 percent. The national average is 14.8 percent.

"From the parents' point of view, it is not always a happy time at our house when those AP courses are being taken," Barcus said. "Frustration sets in at our house, particularly at the onset of these courses, as the children begin to realize what the workload is going to be."

But, she said, "I really believe that most of the AP courses in the high schools are actually more challenging than the same course taught in our state colleges."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company