Arlington and Alexandria

Northern Virginia: Movement To AP and IB Continues

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 11, 2008

Arlington County and Alexandria students took more than three times as many college-level tests this year as they did a decade ago, part of a trend that is making the senior year of high school comparable to the freshman year of college in many Washington area districts.

The rapid growth in the Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate college-level programs, as well as more opportunities for high school students to study at community colleges, is confirmed by The Washington Post's latest Challenge Index survey of 189 high schools in 28 school districts. Since 1998, the Challenge Index has reported the annual level of participation in AP, IB and other college-level tests in dozens of subjects for all public schools in the region.

Washington area educators also had success using college-level courses and tests to raise the level of instruction for impoverished minority students at schools such as Wakefield in Arlington and T.C. Williams in Alexandria. But the push for more college-level courses in disadvantaged schools has led to a new and potentially controversial trend. Several schools, particularly in the District and Prince George's County, are involving large numbers of students in AP, although few score well enough on the exams to receive college credit.

This year, 23 Washington area schools reported grades that could earn college credit on less than 10 percent of their AP exams. The national passing rate is about 57 percent. Educators at several of these schools said that despite the low scores, their AP students benefited from striving for more than is expected in most high school courses and getting the experience of three-hour exams full of essay questions written and scored by outside experts. Previous AP students told the educators that the taste of long reading lists and frequent writing assignments helped them survive academically when they enrolled in college.

Given the emergence of this unconventional use of AP in so many schools, the Challenge Index has been split this year into two ranked lists, one for schools with college-level test passing rates of 10 percent or above, which includes all Arlington and Alexandria schools, and one for schools with single-digit rates.

One D.C. school, Coolidge, broke all local records for AP involvement in a high-poverty school this year by giving 750 AP exams. Only 2 percent received passing scores, but since the Challenge Index is designed to encourage participation and counts tests, not scores, that large participation rate alone would have made Coolidge the top-ranked school in the area, ahead of H-B Woodlawn in Arlington, where 59 percent of the AP exams received passing scores.

Some teachers and parents at Coolidge have complained that the AP courses and tests are no use to students so far behind and hurt their grade-point averages. But parent leader Terry Goings said he supports the program. Coolidge Principal L. Nelson Burton said most AP students are making more progress than they would in an ordinary class and feeling a sense of accomplishment despite their low scores.

The four top schools on the new Catching Up list, in descending order, are Coolidge, Bell Multicultural High School in the District, the D.C. charter school Friendship Collegiate and Prince George's County's Crossland High School. The four top schools on the main list are Woodlawn, Montgomery County's Richard Montgomery High School, Clarke County (Va.) High School and Montgomery's Wootton High School.

Officials of several schools on the Catching Up list said they had no problem with the change, although one principal, who asked not to be identified for fear of being criticized in his district, said it reminded him of separate-but-equal school segregation. Arsallah Shairzay, dean of early college and AP programs at Friendship Collegiate, suggested the index be revised to give credit for the passing grades his students receive in University of the District of Columbia classes.

Wakefield and T.C. Williams are among several Washington area schools with large numbers of impoverished students like those on the Catching Up list but higher AP and IB passing rates. Educators at several schools said such students did better in more affluent districts because they had more experienced teachers and better preparation in lower grades before they reached college-level courses in high school.

Fifty percent of the students at T.C. Williams and 43 percent at Wakefield had family incomes low enough to qualify for federal lunch subsidies. This was comparable to Crossland, 42 percent low-income, and the District's McKinley Tech, 53 percent low-income. But 52 percent of AP tests at T.C. Williams and 53 percent at Wakefield received passing scores, compared with AP passing rates of 3 percent at Crossland and 5 percent at McKinley.

Wakefield Principal Doris Jackson said her students performed better in part because of special AP preparation programs in the summer, at lunch and elsewhere in the schedule. "You can't put them in AP classes without support to help them meet the demands of the class," she said.

As usual, all public high schools in Arlington and Alexandria had a Challenge Index rating of at least 1.000, which puts them in the top 6 percent of U.S. public schools measured this way. The four Arlington schools all placed in the top 20 of the main list.

For more on the changes in the Challenge Index, please see Jay Mathews's Class Struggle column at

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