By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 13, 2007
Prince George's County high schools gave a record 5,589 college-level tests this year, as part of school Superintendent John E. Deasy's effort to strengthen Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs in every school in the district.
The new exam total, part of The Washington Post's annual Challenge Index survey, reflected in part Prince George's new policy of paying the testing fees for all AP and IB courses. The only other district in Washington's Maryland suburbs to do that is St. Mary's County, although it also requires that AP and IB students take the tests. Prince George's follows the more common practice of strongly encouraging students to take the tests.
Almost all districts in Northern Virginia are following the same test requirement policy as St. Mary's. 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.
George Mason High School 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 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.
The highest-ranking Prince George's high school on the Challenge Index list was Eleanor Roosevelt, at 62nd with a rating of 1.992. The greatest one-year improvement was by Oxon Hill High, whose rating increased 40 percent to 1.394, the second-highest in the county.
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 followed the Prince George's policy of paying the AP 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 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, 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, 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.