By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 13, 2007
Montgomery County high schools gave a record 25,920 college-level tests this year, the most for any district in Maryland, and had four schools among the Washington area's top 10 on The Washington Post's annual Challenge Index list.
But in the rankings of Washington area school districts by college-test participation rates, Montgomery dropped from fifth place to sixth as Loudoun County jumped from seventh to fifth. Loudoun was part of a surge of districts in Northern Virginia, which has the second-largest cluster of schools in the country -- behind Arkansas -- that have begun paying for college-level tests for all high school students and requiring students in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate 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.
Montgomery County officials said their schools strongly encourage all students in AP and IB classes to take the exams and make sure any students who cannot afford the fees are subsidized. Frederick County, which has a similar policy, gave 4,499 exams in 2007. St. Mary's County is the only school district in the Maryland suburbs to pay all AP exam fees and require that AP students take the tests.
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. The AP program was created by the College Board in 1955, and the IB program was started in the 1960s by international school teachers in Switzerland.
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. George Mason High in Falls Church 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 does not pay the fees for the few other AP tests that some students take. 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.
Manassas pays the fees but does not require students to take the tests. Culpeper County requires AP students to take the test but only pays part of the fees.
On the Challenge Index ranking of school districts, based on average college-level test participation in each jurisdiction, Montgomery had a rating of 2.695, and Frederick, which ranked 12th out of 27 districts, had a rating of 1.595. The ratings are the number of college-level tests given in all grades, per graduating senior. Montgomery was the only district outside Northern Virginia that placed among the top nine on the list.
Although more U.S. school districts are encouraging AP courses as a way to raise teaching standards and prepare students for college, most do not pay 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 because the results arrive long after the AP 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. Prince George's County also pays AP fees, but AP students are usually not required to take the tests.
The College Board 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.
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 highest Montgomery school on the list was Richard Montgomery High, ranked second out of 186 schools with a rating of 5.061. The highest ranked Frederick school was Middletown High at 2.133, ranked 56th.
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 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 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 10years old in 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.