Sharp Rise in AP Testing Raises Questions in D.C.
Some Teachers, Parents Say Program Is of Little Use Because Many Don't Receive College Credit

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

D.C. public school students took three times as many college-level tests this year on average 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 at many Washington area schools. But in the District, the rise of the Advanced Placement program has become controversial, because only a small portion of AP students are scoring high enough to earn college credit.

The growing use of AP to raise standards for the lowest-performing D.C. students 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, International Baccalaureate and other college-level tests in dozens of subjects for all public schools in the region.

Washington area educators have had success using college-level courses and tests to raise the level of instruction in schools with large numbers of impoverished students, such as Wilson in the District, Wakefield in Arlington County and Wheaton in Montgomery County, while at the same time having students score well on AP exams. But in the District and Prince George's County, many schools with large numbers of AP test-takers also have very low passing rates on the test.

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 said long reading lists and frequent writing assignments helped them survive academically when they enrolled in college.

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 of the students received passing scores, but because the Challenge Index is designed to encourage participation and counts tests, not scores, that large number 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 said that the AP courses and tests are of no use to students so far behind, and that they hurt their grade-point averages. But parent leader Terry Goings said he supports the program. Coolidge Principal L. Nelson Burton said that most AP students are making more progress than they would in an ordinary class and that they are feeling a sense of accomplishment despite their low scores.

Given the emergence of this unconventional use of AP, 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 higher, and one for schools with single-digit rates. The four top schools on the new Catching Up list, in descending order, are: Coolidge, the 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 that the index be revised to give credit for the passing grades his student receive in University of District of Columbia classes.

Asked why some high-poverty schools did much better on the AP exams than others, educators at several schools said more affluent districts or schools with more affluent students had more experienced AP teachers and provided better preparation in lower grades before students reached AP courses.

In Montgomery County, for instance, 48 percent of students at Wheaton High School had family incomes low enough to qualify for federal lunch subsidies. This was comparable to Crossland, with 42 percent low-income students, and the District's McKinley Tech, with 53 percent low-income students. But 32 percent of AP tests at Wheaton received passing scores, compared with 3 percent at Crossland and 5 percent at McKinley. "AP for us is a schoolwide effort," Wheaton Principal Kevin Lowndes said. "It has to start with the ninth-grade teacher who helps the student learn the necessary skills."

Only five non-charter public schools in the District had AP passing rates of 10 percent or above: Banneker (27 percent), Ellington (26 percent), Roosevelt (10 percent), School Without Walls (55 percent) and Wilson (46 percent). Of that group, Banneker, an academic magnet school, had the highest participation rate on the main Challenge Index list and was ranked 26th out of 166 regional schools.

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


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