By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 13, 2007
St. Mary's County has joined Northern Virginia high schools in a surge of college-level test-taking, fueled by new rules that require Advanced Placement students to take AP tests with the school district paying the test fees, the annual Washington Post Challenge Index survey has found.
Northern Virginia has the second-largest cluster of schools in the country -- after Arkansas -- paying for college-level tests for all high school students and requiring students in AP and IB classes to take the programs' difficult exams. Prince William County is the latest school district to adopt the policy, pioneered by Fairfax County in 1998. AP and IB advocates say that 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 college-level AP and IB exams are written and graded by outsiders, so if all students take them, as they are required to do in St. Mary's, classroom teachers have no way of lowering their standards without that being detected when the results are released. In addition to Fairfax and Prince William, other Northern Virginia districts that pay the fees and require AP and IB students to take the tests include Loudoun, Arlington, Fauquier and Clarke counties, plus the cities of Alexandria and Winchester.
Students who fail to take the three-hour AP exams or five-hour IB exams in St. Mary's and the Northern Virginia schools that require the tests usually lose the bonus grade points that come with college-level classes. Arkansas, the only state to pay all AP fees, has the same rule.
Most other suburban Maryland districts strongly encourage AP students to take the tests but do not require it and do not pay the fees for everyone. Prince George's County pays AP fees but does not require that all AP students take the tests.
All three Southern Maryland public school districts did well on the Challenge Index ratings, well above the 1.000 level that only a tiny number of U.S. districts have reached. The highest-ranking Charles County high school on the Challenge Index list was McDonough, ranked 52nd in the Washington area with a rating of 2.216. The highest-ranking Calvert County school was Patuxent, ranked 64th with a rating of 1.951. The highest in St. Mary's was Leonardtown, ranked 72nd out of 186 schools, with a rating of 1.836.
Although more U.S. school districts are encouraging AP and IB courses as a way to raise their teaching standards and prepare students for college, most have not made it their policy to pay the AP testing fees, which can be as high as $84 a test. The vast majority of U.S. schools do not require students to take the AP tests because the results arrive long after the class is over and class-work grades have been recorded. Most IB programs have long required that all students in their courses take the final exams, and school districts in most areas, including Maryland, have picked up those costs.
The College Board, which owns the AP tests, has an agreement with local schools to reduce AP fees by more than a third for low-income students. Federal and state government grants usually pay the rest of the cost for students who can't afford the fees.
Successful AP teachers argue that an AP course works best when students know they are going to be taking the three-hour final exams. With that assumption, the teachers say, students take their work more seriously and the test fosters a team spirit: teachers and students working together to beat the exams.
As usual, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County had the highest Challenge Index rating in the Washington area, 7.486, but it was not included on the list because the index is designed to show which schools are doing the best at challenging average students and does not work with schools like Jefferson that have no average students.
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 their test scores are not high enough. Critics also say that judging high schools by a single number, as the Challenge Index does, overlooks several other qualities that make good schools.
Washington area schools are much more likely to encourage students to take college-level courses than schools elsewhere in the country. Nationally, about 5 percent of public schools achieve a Challenge Index rating of 1.000, which means they give as many tests as they have graduating seniors. In the Washington area, however, 69 percent of the region's 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. The U.S. News list uses AP but not other tests to rank schools. Far fewer Washington area schools are on the U.S. News list because it disqualifies schools that do not exceed statistical expectations on state tests and whose minority proficiency rates do not exceed state averages, and because it does not consider IB tests in its formula.