Maryland: Schools' College-Level Tests Tripled in Past Decade

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

Public school students in Howard and Anne Arundel counties took more than three times 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.

The rapid growth in 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. Carroll County, added to the list in 2004, has doubled its participation rate.

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 High Point in Prince George's County, J.E.B. Stuart in Fairfax County and Wheaton in Montgomery County. But the push for more college-level courses in schools with greater numbers of disadvantaged students 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 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 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 getting a taste of college academic trauma helped them survive academically 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 count tests, not scores, that participation rate 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 feel 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 passing rates of 10 percent and above, and one for schools with passing rates below that.

The four top schools on the new Catching Up list, in descending order, are: Coolidge, Bell Multicultural High school in the District, D.C charter school Friendship Collegiate and Crossland High School in Prince George's County. 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 received in classes at the University of District of Columbia.

Several Washington suburbs 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 AP teachers and better preparation in lower grades before they reached AP courses in high school.

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, and the District's McKinley Tech, with 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.

All but two high schools in Howard and two in Anne Arundel 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. Two schools in Carroll County, Century and Liberty, reached that level. In Anne Arundel, the highest-ranking school was Severna Park, 21st on the main list. The highest-ranking school in Howard was Centennial, 36 out of 166 schools.

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

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