AP and IB Participation Holds Steady

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

Christen Dressel is a senior at South River High School. She loves her Advanced Placement courses. She will have completed 10 of the college-level courses by the time she graduates next year, and she thinks they are the reason she is being admitted to colleges and receiving merit scholarships.

Victoria Vidal is a junior at Severna Park High School. She thinks that some of her AP classes are good but that students can be hurt by having to focus too much on passing the tests. She has taken five AP courses so far and expects to take more next year.

The two AP students tell two stories, not unusual at a time when college-level courses are becoming one of the most important, and controversial, parts of the American high school curriculum. According to the latest Washington Post Challenge Index, they are also a key part of what is happening in high schools in Anne Arundel County.

According to the Challenge Index, there was very little change in the level of AP and International Baccalaureate test-taking this year in Anne Arundel. Still, seven of the county's 12 high schools, including South River and Severna Park, ranked among the top 5 percent of U.S. schools in college-level course participation rates.

The highest-ranking Anne Arundel school on the Post list of high schools was Broadneck, No. 46 among 184 area schools. The lowest-ranking was North County, at 161.

The differences between Dressel and Vidal on the use of AP mirror a debate going on throughout the country. Students such as Dressel say their AP courses are by far the best in their high schools, because the lessons are demanding, the teaching is good and the hard work prepares them for college. Students such as Vidal agree that AP is a worthy idea but say they sometimes feel they are stuffing information into their heads to do well on the AP exams.

"What annoys me is when classes teach to the test and scores -- numbers -- are placed over actual learning," Vidal said. "It is so fabulous to be able to go to higher levels in classes which I have a strong interest." But, she added, "It just depresses me and angers me" to see the opportunity hindered by test anxiety. "A good concept -- advanced classes for those who want to go beyond the average level at their school -- is twisted and distorted so that kids end up getting hurt."

Dressel said she first took an AP class in California as a sophomore but thought it was overcrowded. When she moved to Anne Arundel, she e-mailed South River teacher Ian Goodwin, asking about his AP Human Geography course.

"He not only e-mailed back, we struck up a correspondence that lasted the summer and a friendship that motivated me to take his AP Comparative Government and Politics class this year," she said. "Each of my AP teachers here has gone out of their way to support and encourage me."

Vidal said her experience with teachers at Severna Park was less pleasing.

"One of the main problems with the AP system is that the quality of teaching varies significantly from class to class. Oftentimes, there will be more than one teacher for a class, and one will be much worse than the other. If the material is not taught well in the first place, it is hard to do well on exams that are nationally standardized," she said. "Classes skim over some subjects because 'It never shows up on the AP exam.' But what if that subject is worth learning?"

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 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, persuaded more schools to adopt AP and IB programs.

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 that they will complete 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 Anne Arundel County, adopted the same policy.

The College Board charges $83 for each AP test, though that figure is cut in half for low-income students, and federal money can be used 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 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 AP, the IB exams usually have no multiple-choice questions and allow students to 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.

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