The index does not record how well students do on the AP and IB tests, only how many tests they take. A school that draws from poor or troubled neighborhoods has an opportunity to rank as high on the index as a school full of lawyers' children. Even so, it's obvious that one of the most important factors in any school's performance, even on this index, is the prosperity and education levels in the neighborhoods from which the school draws its students. Schools from rich areas tend to do well; those from poor areas, poorly. But there are fascinating and potentially instructive exceptions in both categories: privileged schools that do less well on the index than you might expect, and underprivileged schools that do as well as their wealthy counterparts, or better.
At Garfield in East L.A., nearly every student who wanted to try an AP course was allowed to do so. Several students who preferred easier fare were dragged in as well. Students who failed the tests were congratulated for their efforts and invited to try again. Many students told me they acquired new confidence in themselves by the mere act of sticking with the course and taking the test. Many of the least eager students found that they did much better than they expected. The program became fashionable, giving it the ultimate high school weapon, peer pressure.
Only a few Washington area schools with Garfield's relatively high percentage of low-income students have adopted such an aggressive approach. Central in Prince George's County, Wilson in the District, Wakefield in Arlington and Mount Vernon in Fairfax are among them. The Fairfax and Arlington school systems do particularly well, in large part because two recently departed superintendents, Robert R. "Bud" Spillane in Fairfax and Arthur W. Gosling in Arlington, believed that AP courses were shams if the students were not pushed to take the exams. Prince William County School Superintendent Edward L. Kelly requires that all students in core AP and IB courses, such as English, chemistry, mathematics and history, take the tests, in return for which the district pays the $75-per-test fees.
And what of schools of excellent repute, drawing from prosperous and well-educated areas, that do not score as high as you might expect? James E. Person, principal of Park View High School in Loudoun County, said many students in AP courses fail to take the AP tests because "they get stretched pretty thin and are involved in a ton of other things." Jack Graham, the new principal of Osbourn High in Manassas City, said teachers are frustrated by the number of students who take the course but choose not to take the tests. "We need to do a better job of selling that," he said.
Whitman High in Montgomery County has a five-year-old building that resembles an upscale mall and a national reputation for excellence. It has twice been named the best high school in Maryland by Redbook magazine. Its students win prizes and go off to Ivy League schools each year in astonishing numbers. Its index of 1.170 puts it among the top 2 percent of U.S. schools and yet it falls below schools like Langley in Fairfax, Yorktown in Arlington, and also below many schools around the country that have fewer resources and more low-income students.
Why is that? Some Whitman students say those who receive a B in pre-calculus are not encouraged to take AP calculus, although principal Jerome Marco denies it. Writing tests are given to students who wish to enter AP English, and those who don't meet a high standard are not encouraged to enroll. The initial AP English assignment is often so difficult that some students immediately drop the course. This suggests that the school has chosen to teach at least some of its AP courses at such a high level that they exclude students who, with patient teaching, could do reasonably well on the AP examination.
Marco says many students in AP courses fail to take the AP tests after they have received their college acceptances and no longer need to decorate their transcripts. He said teachers are right to steer students away from classes that are too hard for them but that he will open any course to any qualified student who insists. One way out of this predicament might be for schools like Whitman to establish AP-plus classes for their ultra-talented students, so that they could comfortably offer the ordinary AP curriculum to applicants who are merely bright.
Some teachers discourage students from remaining in AP classes or from taking the test when they are struggling with the subject matter. This helps inflate the school's percentage of passing scores, a source of pride for faculty and administrators, but does not inspire good teaching.
Compare this to the anything-goes spirit that animates students, teachers and counselors at Falls Church's George Mason High, where more high-level courses are offered to a larger slice of the student body than at any other public school in the Washington area. It is the only high school in its district. It has fewer than 500 students on a little campus wedged between Interstate 66 and Leesburg Pike. But in some ways it outshines every other school I have ever visited.
Michael Hoover, who teaches English at George Mason, says a few teachers warned of severe consequences when the school decided to open its IB classes to all students. He was told the percentage of students passing the tests would drop. They did at first, then rebounded to new highs. He was told that parents would object to diluting the high-level classes. Instead, they embraced the idea.
Erin Albright, the IB coordinator, said 35 percent of George Mason's juniors and seniors took IB courses and tests five years ago. That percentage has doubled. She said many teachers had long suspected that they could demand much more from students than they did. "Nobody ever came back and told me they worked too hard in high school," she said. "We showed the students that you can challenge yourself at the highest level and be successful."
George Mason overcame the warm complacency that envelops most schools in nice suburban neighborhoods. But it is an isolated example. Urging teenagers to dive into deeper academic waters seems to be what our national education leaders want, but such daring still inspires little more than discomfort in many of our best public high schools.
Jay Mathews covers education for the Post's Metro staff. His book about challenging public high schools, "Class Struggle," has just been published. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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