County AP Program Remains Strong

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

Most Howard County high schools maintained their strong Advanced Placement programs this year, according to The Washington Post's Challenge Index, though the school system continued to lag behind other similarly affluent districts in the region.

Howard ranked 15th among 28 local school districts in college-level test participation, and its rating increased 1.6 percent. In Montgomery and Frederick counties, all high schools have reached the Challenge Index benchmark of having at least as many college-level tests as graduating seniors, which puts them in the top 5 percent of U.S. schools. In Howard, six of the 11 high schools have reached that level.

The highest-ranked Howard school on the Challenge Index list of 184 Washington area high schools was Centennial, at No. 21. The lowest-ranked was Oakland Mills at No. 154.

Although Carroll County ranks below Howard, at No. 22 among 28 districts, its Challenge Index rating grew 43.2 percent this year. Its highest-ranked school was Liberty at No. 60, and its lowest-ranked was North Carroll at No. 162.

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 program 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, 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 a vital taste of college trauma in high school that makes it more likely that students 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 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 a single year, and many other districts, not including Howard and Carroll, adopted the 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 County does, gives an unfair advantage to wealthy districts that can afford to do so. But successful AP teachers say that 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 they 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.

The Post's Challenge Index has added a new statistic, the Equity and Excellence rate, to show which schools had the highest percentage of seniors who passed at least one AP or IB test before graduation. The top 10 schools are Clarke County (74 percent), Langley in Fairfax (72 percent), George Mason in Falls Church (71 percent), Churchill in Montgomery (70.4 percent), Whitman in Montgomery (70.2 percent), Wootton in Montgomery (69.5 percent), H-B Woodlawn in Arlington County (69 percent), McLean in Fairfax (67 percent), Bethesda-Chevy Chase in Montgomery (64.2 percent) and Yorktown in Arlington (62.3 percent). The AP national average was 14.8 percent.

The highest Equity and Excellence rate in Howard County was 53.3 percent at Centennial. In Carroll, the highest was 28.4 percent at Century High School.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company