Advanced Courses Expand in Scope

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

Kim Reeves's daughter took two Advanced Placement English courses at La Plata High School, and they were not easy. The subject matter moved very quickly, giving the teachers "no leeway to help students who didn't catch on as quickly as others," Reeves said.

"My daughter spent most of those two years confused and struggling to get work done," she said. "One of those years she was playing more than one sport, which didn't make things any easier. She took the AP test both years and didn't score high enough to receive college credit."

Many Southern Maryland parents and students tell similar stories. According to The Washington Post's 2006 Challenge Index, Calvert, Charles and St. Mary's counties all have had robust growth this year in their college-level courses and tests, and many more students have added the difficult AP courses to their schedules.

But, Reeves added, even if students think the courses and tests are straining them, the long-term results might be very good.

"Her SAT scores in the reading and comprehension areas went up 110 points from one year to the next," Reeves said of her daughter, "and, as a college freshman this year, she has a grade of 98 percent in her English class. I do believe that this is the result of the AP classes. She did learn something in those classes. She just didn't realize it until this year."

All three counties ranked in the top half of the Challenge Index list of 28 Washington area school districts, and most of the Southern Maryland schools did very well on the list of 184 schools. Only one school in the three districts, Lackey in Charles County, did not reach the Challenge Index benchmark of having at least as many college level tests as it had graduating seniors. Even so, Lackey's rating increased significantly this year.

The AP program, created by the College Board in 1955, and the International Baccalaureate program, begun in the late 1960s by 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 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 all over 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 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 -- convinced 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 students a vital taste of college trauma in high school that makes it more likely they will earn college degrees.

In the Washington area, Fairfax County raised AP test-taking to a new level in 1998 by announcing 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 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 there are federal dollars to pick up the rest of the cost if necessary.

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

The IB exams are five hours long, and usually take two days to complete. Unlike the AP, the IB exams usually have no multiple-choice questions, and students may choose from an array of essay questions so that teachers, if they wish, can emphasize some subjects more than others without putting the student at risk of failing the exam.

Mike Creveling, who taught AP Biology at La Plata High last year, said his experience in Charles and Prince George's counties indicates that districts waver from year to year, emphasizing participation in the tests one year, and scores on the tests the next. Both, he added, are laudable goals.

Reeves said she has debated whether her daughter's struggle with AP English was worth it.

"Yes and no," she concluded. "I hate that she was so frustrated most of the time, but the end result was positive."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company