By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 13, 2007
Howard County high schools gave a record 5,584 college-level tests this year, a 14 percent increase from 2006, part of the county's steady growth in participation in the Advanced Placement program over the past several years.
The Washington Post's annual Challenge Index survey shows that Howard's AP test participation rate has increased 126 percent since 2000, and the county now ranks 15th among 27 local school districts. Like other Maryland districts, it has encouraged more students to take AP tests but has not gone as far as Northern Virginia, where most districts are requiring that all AP and International Baccalaureate students take the tests and are paying their test fees.
Those actions by eight Northern Virginia school districts have made it the second-largest cluster of schools in the country -- behind 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' 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 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 do not 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.
Howard encourages AP students to take the tests, but it does not pay the fees for everyone and does not require that students take the test. The highest-ranking Howard school was Centennial High, ranked 40th out of 186 Washington area schools with a rating of 2.547. The greatest one-year improvement was by Oakland Mills High, whose rating increased 63 percent to 0.951.
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 for 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 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 it. Successful AP teachers say that an AP course works best when all students know they are going to be taking the three-hour final exams. They say that motivates students to take their work seriously and creates a team spirit.
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 such as 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 other qualities that make schools good.
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. 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.