By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 13, 2007
The number of college-level tests given in D.C. public high schools has nearly doubled in two years, as several regular public schools and charter schools have persuaded many more students to take the Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams.
The Washington Post's annual Challenge Index survey found that the number of AP and IB exams given in the District has increased to 3,083, compared with 1,628 in 2005. The District has moved from 23rd to 20th among 27 Washington area districts ranked by college-level test participation.
Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee has committed herself to encouraging more of the college-level courses and tests. All D.C. test fees are paid by the city, although the new school leaders have yet to join Northern Virginia in not only paying for the exams but requiring that all AP and IB students take them.
Northern Virginia has the second-largest cluster of schools in the country, after Arkansas, to pay for college-level tests for all high school students and to require students in AP and IB classes to take the programs' 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 that if all students take them, classroom teachers have no way of lowering their standards without it 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. 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.
The highest-ranking D.C. school on the Challenge Index list is Bell Multicultural High School, which ranked 13th, with a rating of 3.888. The increase was largely because of its new policy of requiring all students to take AP English literature, a huge challenge in a school where most students come from homes in which English is not the first language. Like students in most D.C. schools, few are passing the college-level exams -- 13 percent this year at Bell. AP and IB advocates in the District say insisting that students take the high-level exams will inspire more work. Critics say the low passing rates indicate that D.C. students should be given a less demanding curriculum, at least for the time being.
Although more U.S. school districts are encouraging AP courses as a way to raise their teaching standards and prepare students for college, most have not paid the AP testing fees, which can be as high as $84 a test. The vast majority of U.S. schools do not require AP 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 their courses to take the final exams, and school districts in most areas, including the District, have picked up those costs.
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 it. Successful AP teachers say an AP course works best when all students know they are going to be taking the 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.
Once again, the 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 on the list because the index excludes Jefferson and about 20 other U.S. magnet schools. The index is designed to show which schools are doing the best at challenging average students and does not work with schools 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 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 area, 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 area 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.