Prince George's County

Pr. George's Doubles Its College-Level Test Takers

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

Prince George's County public school students took more than twice as many college-level tests on average 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.

But this rise of the Advanced Placement program, particularly in Prince George's, has the potential to become controversial because in many schools only a small portion of AP students are scoring high enough to earn college credit.

This growing use of AP to raise standards for the lowest-performing Prince George's 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 a large number of impoverished students, such as High Point in Prince George's, Wakefield in Arlington County and Wheaton in Montgomery County, while at the same time scoring well on AP exams. In the District and Prince George's, however, 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 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 have said that taste of long reading lists and frequent writing assignments helped them survive academically in college.

One District high school, Coolidge, gave 750 AP exams this year, breaking local records for AP involvement in a high-poverty school. Only 2 percent of the exams received passing scores, but because the Challenge Index was designed to encourage participation and count tests, not scores, the 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.

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 are, in descending order, Coolidge, Bell Multicultural and Friendship Collegiate in the District and Crossland High School in Prince George's.

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

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.

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 receive in University of the District of Columbia classes.

Some teachers and parents at Coolidge have complained that the AP courses and tests are no use to students so far behind, and they 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 are feeling a sense of accomplishment despite their low scores.

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