N.Va. Schools Top Challenge Index Survey

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 and IB exams given in Fairfax and Falls Church 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. Fairfax schools gave a record 30,863 AP and IB tests in May, an 11 percent increase from 2006. Falls Church's one high school, George Mason, gave 664 IB and AP tests, a 10 percent increase and also a record.

Other Northern Virginia districts that pay the fees and require AP and IB students to take the tests include Arlington, Loudoun, Fauquier and Clarke counties and Alexandria and Winchester.

George Mason High follows that rule for its IB courses, the focus of its college-level program, and has the same policy for AP calculus and AP government. But it does not pay the fees for the few other AP tests some students take. Students who fail to take the three-hour AP exams or five-hour IB exams in Northern Virginia schools that require the tests usually lose the bonus grade points that come with college-level classes.

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.

On the Challenge Index ranking of school districts, based on average college-level test participation in each jurisdiction, Falls Church, with a rating of 4.176, ranked second. Fairfax, at 2.852, ranked fourth in the region. The ratings are the number of college-level tests given in all grades, per graduating senior. The only district outside Northern Virginia that placed among the top nine on the list was Montgomery County, in sixth place.

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.

Once again, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax had the highest Challenge Index rating in the Washington region, 7.486. But it was not on the list because the index excludes Jefferson and about 20 other elite 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.

Other than Jefferson, the highest Fairfax school on the list was Langley High, which ranked fourth of 186 schools. George Mason ranked sixth. South Lakes High had the biggest rating increase among Fairfax schools, up 35 percent from 1.475 to 1.991.

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 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 good schools.

Washington region 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 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. The U.S. News list uses AP but not other tests to rank schools. 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 does not consider IB tests in its formula.

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