D.C. Schools Rank 23rd in Region on Challenge Index

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

Benjamin Banneker Academic, Bell Multicultural and Woodrow Wilson high schools continue to have strong Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs, according to the 2006 Washington Post Challenge Index, and a few other schools improved on the list.

But D.C. schools on average ranked relatively low in the region.

The District was 23rd out of 28 school systems in the area in college-level test participation on the Challenge Index. It only increased 8.4 percent in its rating from last year, while most systems had double-digit improvement, which is part of the reason why D.C. School Superintendent Clifford B. Janey has been emphasizing AP and IB in his plans to improve the schools.

Banneker, with one of the city's largest jumps in rating, from 2.443 to 3.494, ranked 13th out of 184 schools on the area list, the highest in the District. Bell, the second-highest, was 45th, and Wilson was 50th. The SEED Public Charter School, where the mostly low-income students live during the week at the school's new campus in Southeast Washington, was 79th and School Without Walls was 82nd.

Zachary May, a senior at School Without Walls, said his unusual school's partnerships with George Washington University and the University of the District of Columbia allowed him to take not only AP courses but actual college courses. Only a few of the other students in his classes at George Washington knew he was a high school student. May said he will have completed both AP U.S. history and AP calculus by the time he graduates this spring, as well as George Washington courses in engineering drawing, computer graphics and American literature.

He said he thought the George Washington courses should also count on the Challenge Index. Under the rules, such courses are counted if they have final exams similar to the AP and IB tests that are the mainstay of the list. Last year, School Without Walls was credited with 48 final exams at local colleges. This year it submitted no data on local college exams but gave more AP exams than ever -- a total of 122 -- and thus placed high enough on the list to be in the top 3 percent of all U.S. schools.

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, 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 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 students a vital taste of college trauma in high school that makes it more likely they will earn their 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. Many other area school systems adopted the same policy, but the District has not.

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.

Advanced Placement has 37 courses and exams across 22 subject areas. Some critics of the Challenge Index say paying for the tests, as most Northern Virginia districts do, 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.

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