By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 13, 2007
All of Northern Virginia's major school systems now pay for college-level tests for all high school students and require those in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes to take the programs' difficult exams, according to The Washington Post's annual Challenge Index survey.
The region is unique in having such a large cluster of school districts with those policies. Prince William County is the latest district to adopt the approach, which was pioneered by Fairfax County in 1998 and followed soon after by Arlington County. AP and IB advocates say requiring the exams and paying for them guarantees each student a full college-level experience and provides a clearer indication of how well each class has been taught.
The only state to adopt such policies is Arkansas, which did so in 2004.
The college-level AP, IB and Cambridge exams given in Prince William are written and graded by outsiders, so that if all students take the exams, classroom teachers have no way of lowering their standards without that being detected when the results are released. Prince William schools gave 6,972 AP, IB and Cambridge tests in May, a record for the school system and a 19 percent increase over 2006.
For years Prince William had paid AP fees only in core subject courses, such as math, history, English and science. It gradually added more AP courses to the list.
Superintendent Steven L. Walts won School Board approval last year to pay all fees. Gail Hubbard, supervisor of gifted education and special programs, said the move increases student access to college-level courses and "allows teachers to take a look at their results and fully understand how the kids in their class did" instead of getting no results from students who couldn't or wouldn't take the test.
Other Northern Virginia districts that pay the fees and require AP and IB students to take the tests include Loudoun, Fauquier and Clarke counties and Alexandria and Winchester. Students in those districts who fail to take the three-hour AP exams or five-hour IB exams usually lose the bonus grade points that come with college-level classes.
Stafford County, which does not pay AP fees or require that students take the tests, increased its rating from 1.048 to 1.177 and ranked 19th in the Washington region. The only district outside Northern Virginia that placed among the top nine was Montgomery County, in sixth place.
Manassas pays the exam fees but does not require students to take the tests. Culpeper County requires AP students to take the test but pays only part of the fees.
Although more U.S. school districts are encouraging AP courses to raise their teaching standards and prepare students for college, most do not pay the exam fees, which can be as high as $84 a test.
The vast majority of U.S. schools outside Northern Virginia do not require students to take the AP tests, because the results arrive long after the class is over and report card grades have been recorded based on class work. Most IB programs have long required all students in such courses to take the final exams. School districts in most areas, including Northern Virginia, have picked up those costs.
D.C. schools also pay AP fees. In Maryland, AP test taking is strongly encouraged, and some districts, such as Prince George's County, pay the fees, but AP students are usually not required to take the tests.
The College Board, which owns the AP tests, reduces AP fees by more than a third for low-income students. Federal and state government grants usually pay the rest for students who can't afford the tests. Successful AP teachers say an AP course works best when all students know they are going to be taking final exams. They say that motivates students to take their work seriously and creates a team spirit -- teacher and students working together to beat the exams.
This year's surge in college-level tests raised Prince William from 12th to ninth place among region school districts on the Challenge Index. Prince William is one of the few districts in the country that offer the British-designed Cambridge program, which is available at Brentsville District and Potomac Senior high schools.
C.D. Hylton High School had the highest Challenge Index rating in the county, 2.493, and ranked 41st of 186 schools in the region. Potomac had the biggest rating increase among county schools, rising from 1.468 to 1.919, a 31 percent jump.
The Challenge Index ranks schools nationally in Newsweek and locally in The Post to show which schools and districts are doing the most to prepare students for college. Critics of the AP and IB programs say they sometimes put too much pressure on students, who might not earn college credit if the test scores are not high enough. They say that judging high schools by a single number, as the Challenge Index does, overlooks several other qualities that make schools good.
Schools in the Washington area are much more likely to encourage students to take college-level courses than schools elsewhere. Nationally, about 5 percent of public schools achieve a 1.000 rating, which means they give as many tests as they have graduating seniors, on the Challenge Index. In the Washington region, 69 percent of public schools achieved that mark this year.
This month the Challenge Index, which will be 10 years old in the spring, got a competitor, the first U.S. News & World Report high schools list. There are far fewer Washington region schools on the U.S. News list because it disqualifies those that don't exceed statistical expectations on state tests and whose minority proficiency rates do not exceed state averages, and because it uses AP but not other tests to rank schools.