Arundel's High Schools Make Leap on Challenge Index

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 13, 2007

Anne Arundel County high schools gave a record 8,197 college-level tests this year, a 37 percent increase from 2006, as school officials moved to end a widespread reluctance of students to take the difficult Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams.

School Superintendent Kevin Maxwell said the surge in test taking, reported in The Washington Post's annual Challenge Index survey, grew from his conversations last year with George Arlotto, chief school performance officer, over "the nearly 50 percent gap between student enrollment in AP classes and the number of AP tests taken."

Maxwell said that "the principals believed that a 20 percent increase in AP tests taken for last year was attainable, and I am thrilled that, due to their hard work and that of the excellent teachers, we have surpassed that."

Anne Arundel jumped from 16th to 10th among 27 Washington area school districts, as ranked by the Challenge Index analysis of each school's college-level test participation. It was one of the biggest increases in Maryland, which as a region has fallen behind the AP and IB growth in Northern Virginia.

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 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, teachers have no way of lowering their standards without that being detected when the results are released.

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. The only district in suburban Maryland following this policy is St. Mary's County.

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.

Anne Arundel strongly encourages AP students to take the tests but does not pay the fees for everyone and does not require that students take the test. The school district has budgeted more funds to pay fees for low-income students.

The highest-ranking Anne Arundel high school on the Challenge Index list was Broadneck, ranked 30th with a rating of 2.730. The greatest one-year improvement was by Annapolis High, whose rating increased 46 percent to 2.298, third-highest in the county.

Although more U.S. school districts are encouraging AP courses as a way to raise teaching standards and prepare students for college, most have not paid the 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, since the results arrive long after the class is over and class-work grades have been recorded. Most IB programs have long required all students in their courses to 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 it.

Successful AP teachers argue that an AP course works best when students know they are going to be taking the three-hour final exams. They say that motivates students to take the work seriously and creates 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 and may not earn college credit if the test scores are not high enough. Critics also say that judging high schools by a single number, as the Challenge Index does, overlooks 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, only 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 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 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.

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