Montgomery County

Montgomery: College-Level Tests Grow Fourfold in A Decade

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

Students in Montgomery and Frederick counties took four 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 school 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 County, J.E.B. Stuart in Fairfax County and Wheaton in Montgomery.

However, 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 classes even though few of them score well enough on the exams to receive college credit.

Twenty-three Washington area schools reported grades this year that could earn college credit on fewer 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 those educators that the taste of college academic trauma 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 was designed to encourage participation and counts tests, not scores, that 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.

But given the emergence of the 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 passing rates of 10 percent or above and one for schools with passing rates below that level. The four top schools on the new Catching Up schools list, in descending order, are Coolidge, Bell Multicultural in the District, D.C charter school Friendship Collegiate and Crossland in Prince George's.

The four top schools on the regular list are Woodlawn, Montgomery County's Richard Montgomery, Clarke County (Va.) and Montgomery's Wootton.

Officials at several schools on the Catching Up list said they had no problem with the change, although one principal, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of criticism in his district, said it reminded him of separate-but-equal school segregation. Another official -- 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 received in University of the District of Columbia classes.

Some teachers and parents at Coolidge have said 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 most AP students are making more progress than they would in an ordinary class and feeling a sense of accomplishment despite their low scores.

Several Washington suburbs, including Montgomery, have high schools with large numbers of impoverished students like those on the Catching Up list but with higher AP and IB passing rates. Educators at several schools said such students did better in more affluent districts because they had more experienced AP teachers and better preparation in lower grades before they reached AP courses in high school.

In Montgomery, 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, 42 percent low-income, and the District's McKinley Tech, 53 percent low-income. 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," said Wheaton Principal Kevin Lowndes. "It has to start with the ninth-grade teacher who helps the student learn the necessary skills."

As usual, every high school in Montgomery and nearly every school in Frederick County had a Challenge Index rating of at least 1, which puts them in the top 6 percent of all U.S. public schools measured this way. The ratings are the number of college-level tests given in all grades, per graduating senior. Tuscarora High, the only Frederick County school under 1, came very close. It would have reached 1 if it had given eight more AP exams.

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

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