They're Up for a Challenge

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

Among Arlington County's four high schools, Wakefield is often viewed as the most disadvantaged. Among the four, the south Arlington school has the largest proportion of low-income students -- 54 percent -- and of minorities.

But a survey of students, parents and educators accompanying The Washington Post's annual Challenge Index listing of area high schools has inspired glowing testimonials from former Wakefield students, who say the school's Advanced Placement program was one of the best academic experiences of their lives.

The AP classes at Wakefield "forced me to learn how to manage time," said Julia Schoelwer, a James Madison University freshman. "I learned good note-taking skills, for both lectures and text, and how to test well. . . . My AP teachers are the ones I'll be returning to visit come winter break, as they had the most influence on my high school career."

Wakefield graduate Laura Downes, a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh, said, "From my English AP classes I have learned how to efficiently write an essay with the sort of style and depth that teachers and professors like and can pick up key ideas and themes in my readings."

For Claire Allen, a freshman at Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio, "The AP program at Wakefield is truly something special, and I will forever be grateful to them for the level of personal attention they give all their students and for the quality of education that is still helping me long after graduation."

Allen and Schoelwer singled out several AP teachers, including MaryAnn Bell (English), Colette Fraley (U.S. history), Michael Grill (government and politics), Patrick Kelly (European history) and Michael Lutz (English). "The study habits they taught us have become something I do automatically, without thinking, such as making an outline for an essay before I write it," Allen said.

In the Challenge Index list, Arlington ranked third among 28 Washington area school systems. Its three other high schools ranked higher than Wakefield; among 184 local schools, H-B Woodlawn ranked first, Washington-Lee fourth and Yorktown seventh. Wakefield ranked 44th. All four schools ranked in the top 1 percent of U.S. schools. Wakefield ranked first in the Washington region among schools where at least 40 percent of students are classified as low income.

Schoelwer gave much credit to Wakefield Principal Doris Jackson, whose program of seminar and summer school support for AP studies won the school a $25,000 award from the College Board this year, one of only three schools so honored in the country.

Alexandria's T.C. Williams High School also did well. Its Challenge Index rating jumped 19.4 percent in just one year. It ranked 69th among schools; was sixth among schools with at least 40 percent of their students considered low-income; and the school district to which it belongs was ninth among districts.

The AP program, created by the College Board in 1955, and the International Baccalaureate 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 high school students could pass tests 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 program was also designed to give students living outside their home countries an exam that would qualify them for entrance to colleges worldwide.

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 with high second-year college success and higher college graduation rates. Some scholars say that could be because of the character of the students who do well in AP and not because of the AP experience. Other educators say AP and IB provide a vital taste of the demands of college in high school, making it more likely that those students will receive 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 taken in the county jumped 71 percent in one year, and many other districts, including Arlington and Alexandria, adopted the policy.

Some educators have complained that the Challenge Index list does not show how well students did on the exams. A new statistic, the Equity and Excellence rate, has been added to the list to show which schools had the highest percentage of seniors passing at least one AP or IB test before graduation.

The top 10 schools on that scale on the new list are Clarke County (74 percent), Langley (72 percent), George Mason (71 percent), Churchill (70.4 percent), Whitman (70.2 percent), Wootton (69.5 percent), H-B Woodlawn (69 percent), McLean (67 percent), Bethesda-Chevy Chase (64.2 percent) and Yorktown (62.3 percent).

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County would top both lists, with a 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 Thomas Jefferson has no average students.

Jay Mathews can be reached

© 2006 The Washington Post Company