County Students Pile On AP, IB Courses

Robinson Secondary School International Baccalaureate English 2 teacher Lisa Green talks with, from left, seniors Marissa Acker, Sonya Pirowski and Jillian Berner, all 18.
Robinson Secondary School International Baccalaureate English 2 teacher Lisa Green talks with, from left, seniors Marissa Acker, Sonya Pirowski and Jillian Berner, all 18. (By Tracy A Woodward -- The Washington Post)
By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 14, 2006

Fairfax County students take a heavier load of college-level courses than students in any other large school district in the country, according to the 2006 Washington Post Challenge Index and national data. And although some say it can be a grind, many believe it is necessary in preparing for college.

Angie Palma, a West Potomac High School student taking three Advanced Placement courses, said one class had "so much information . . . thrown at us so quickly that once you miss one concept, the rest is gibberish. There is so much work and so little time to do the work that it can be very overwhelming."

But a Post survey of student, parent and faculty opinions accompanying the ranked list of area high schools found that, despite the heavy workload, students such as Palma praised AP and International Baccalaureate courses. Palma said she was tempted to drop one of her AP courses this year but decided not to because "according to friends of mine who are college freshmen, this is a great way to get prepared for a college workload." The desire to use AP and IB classes to get into college -- and to survive academically once there -- appears to explain the steady increase in the amount of Fairfax high school students preparing for college-level tests.

For the index, which measures a public high school's efforts to challenge its students, public schools in the District and 27 area cities and counties are ranked by dividing the number of college-level final exams given in spring 2006 by the number of seniors who graduated. The Post index was coupled with national data collected this year for Newsweek magazine's "America's Best High Schools."

Only 5 percent of U.S. high schools give at least as many college-level tests as they have graduating seniors, but all Fairfax high schools reached that benchmark again this year, according to Newsweek and Post data. The number of college-level tests in Fairfax increased 11.2 percent, and the county's overall Challenge Index rating increased 6.4 percent, putting it in fourth place among 28 Washington area school districts. The three top districts -- Clarke, Falls Church and Arlington -- have far fewer students than Fairfax.

Falls Church's only high school, George Mason, came in eighth among 184 Washington area public schools on the index with an IB program that has one of the highest participation and success rates in the country, according to Post and Newsweek data.

Several Fairfax high school students emphasized the importance of what they are hearing from friends in college: Homework you are doing now will be a blessing when you enter higher education.

"Kids who are in IB and AP classes may complain about their workload and the level of material -- I admit I do, too -- but that's part of the purpose of those classes," said Jillian Berner, a senior who has taken both IB and AP classes at Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax. "I've heard from older friends that the majority of kids who take AP or IB are better prepared for their freshman year of college."

Sonya Pirowski, also a Robinson Secondary senior, said she got the same message. She said she can see how preparing for IB and AP tests -- which stress critical thinking and analysis -- has improved her writing ability.

She said she appreciates the serious atmosphere in the classrooms. "Students who take IB and AP classes are generally highly motivated, grade-oriented and well-behaved," she said. This is a sharp contrast to regular courses, she said, where she feels out of place because she is used to "the faster pace, the higher work levels and the constant assessments" of AP and IB courses.

Robinson Secondary student Marissa Acker said she thinks AP tests have an advantage over IB tests on The Post's index and that it ranked Robinson lower than it deserves. Indeed, students in higher-level IB courses study for two years for exams, whereas AP students have only one year leading up to course exams. "We rank in as having a less challenging curriculum, when in fact that is completely false," she said.

On the index, nine Fairfax high schools that offer AP but not IB courses rank ahead of Robinson Secondary, which has both. But the school ranks very high on the index at No. 23 and in the top 1 percent of schools nationally in the Newsweek survey.

The AP program, which the College Board has run since 1955, and the IB program, founded in 1968 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 comparable to final exams in college introductory courses, they could save time and money by skipping the introductory courses in college. The IB also was designed to give students who live outside their home countries an exam that would qualify them for entrance to universities throughout 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 famous AP calculus course for low-income students at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles -- convinced more schools to adopt the courses.

In the Washington area, Fairfax 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 did for IB students. The number of AP tests administered in the county jumped 71 percent in a single year, and many other school districts adopted the policy.

Some educators have complained that The Post's list does not give enough attention to how many students pass the exams. The College Board's Equity and Excellence rating has been added to The Post index to show which schools have the highest percentage of students who earn at least one passing college-level test score in high school. The top 10 local schools on that scale, with their percentages in parentheses, are Clarke County (74), Langley (72), George Mason (71), Churchill (70.4), Whitman (70.2), Wootton (69.5), H-B Woodlawn (69), McLean (67), Bethesda-Chevy Chase (64.2) and Yorktown (62.3).

Fairfax's Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology would be on top of both lists with a Challenge Index rating of 7.311 and an Equity and Excellence rating 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 average students, and Jefferson has no average students.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company