Fairfax and Falls Church

Northern Virginia: College-Level Testing Is Up Sharply In Region

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

Students in Fairfax County and Falls Church 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 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 J.E.B. Stuart in Fairfax, Wakefield in Arlington County and Wheaton in Montgomery County. 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 even though 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 taking three-hour exams full of essay questions written and scored by outside experts. Previous AP students told the educators that the long reading lists and many 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 received passing scores, but because the Challenge Index is designed to encourage participation and count tests, not scores, that large number 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 said that the AP courses and tests are of 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 that most AP students are making more progress than they would in an ordinary class and are feeling a sense of accomplishment despite their low scores.

Given the emergence of this unconventional use of AP in so many local 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 and one for schools with single-digit rates.

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 regular 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 the University of the District of Columbia classes.

Several Washington suburbs, including Montgomery County, have high schools with large numbers of impoverished students such as 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.

In Fairfax, for instance, 58 percent of students at J.E.B. Stuart High School had family incomes low enough to qualify for federal lunch subsidies. This was comparable to Crossland, with 42 percent low-income, and the District's McKinley Tech, with 53 percent low income. But 81 percent of IB tests at Stuart received passing scores, compared with AP passing rates of 3 percent at Crossland and 5 percent at McKinley. Analyses of AP and IB suggests students who pass both are at about the same level.

Stuart Principal Pamela A. Jones said her IB program has benefited from work in earlier grades to build study skills and expose students to IB-like writing assignments. Students who participate in the Advancement Via Individual Determination program and the IB Middle Years Program are readier for IB, she said.

As usual, every high school in Fairfax County, and Falls Church's single high school, George Mason, had a Challenge Index rating of at least 1.000, which puts them in the top 6 percent of all U.S. public schools measured this way. George Mason ranked sixth on the main list, and W.T. Woodson in Fairfax ranked eighth, one of seven Fairfax schools in the top 20.

For more on the changes in the Challenge Index, see Jay Mathews's Class Struggle column at http://www.washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.

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