From The Post Magazine
Courtney Lancos, a personable 17-year-old with an intense interest in veterinary medicine, began her senior year at Howard County's Atholton High craving an intellectual workout. She enrolled in Advanced Placement English, usually the toughest test of writing any American high school can offer. She expected a reading list of terrifying length and enough required papers to burn out her word processor.
Instead, Lancos soon realized, the course was a dud. The teacher, a replacement for someone who had left the school, had never taught AP before. Weeks would pass between significant writing assignments. The students read "The Canterbury Tales" and a few other essential works, but Lancos felt she was floating adrift rather than running the rapids.
When it came time to take the AP test, a three-hour examination written by national experts for those seeking college credit, she declined. She did not feel prepared. The teacher made no effort to point out the benefits of attempting a college test even if she did not do well. Two-thirds of her fellow students also skipped the examination. She got a solid B in the course, but she felt she had not learned nearly as much as she had hoped.
That's the main conclusion of my second annual Challenge Index assessment of area schools. Ranking schools is a perilous exercise that can hurt feelings more than it helps children. But by focusing specifically on the number of AP and IB tests taken by a school's students, the index seeks to measure a school's efforts to improve learning and make demands on its students, rather than just gauge student abilities as most rating systems do.
The numbers indicate that many area high schools with college-oriented students and strong academic reputations do not provide nearly as many opportunities for AP or IB as they are capable of. At the same time, the index suggests that some schools in the Washington area with many disadvantaged students, such as Wakefield in Arlington, Stuart in Fairfax, Central in Prince George's and Wilson in the District, are much more willing to let students risk failure in AP and IB courses in order to learn.
AP and IB courses are wrongly perceived by many parents, students and teachers as something akin to the Porsches and BMWs they occasionally see in the school parking lot – expensive toys for smart rich kids. AP was originally designed to relieve the boredom of bright prep school students, and IB to provide a unified curriculum for diplomats' children, but in the last two decades they have been democratized in ways their inventors never dreamed of.
AP and IB courses in a wide range of subjects are usually offered in the junior and senior years. The final examinations are full of questions that require analysis, not just memorization. They are graded by teachers from other schools who do not know the students taking the tests.
Last spring 704,298 students took 1.1 million AP tests at 12,886 high schools. The IB program had only 16,080 students taking 43,017 tests at 233 U.S. schools, but that is quadruple the IB numbers of a decade ago. The tests are expensive – $76 for each AP examination, and roughly the same for IBs – but federal, state and local officials are moving to pick up the cost for low-income students. Some inner-city schools are discovering the gold-plated programs work even for cash-poor students often considered ill-prepared for brain-crunching courses.
Increased pressure on schools to raise academic achievement, particularly among minorities, has shoved AP and IB into the center of the debate over how to fix American education. Policymakers in recent months have put particular emphasis on a new U.S. Department of Education study. Clifford Adelman, a senior research analyst in the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, used 13 years of data on more than 13,000 students to show that a strong high school program full of courses like AP is a better predictor of college success than test scores, grades or class rank. The connection is even stronger for minority students, the study found. In July the American Civil Liberties Union endorsed the point by suing the state of California for allegedly denying minority high school students adequate access to AP.
Adelman believes a student who works hard in an AP or IB course and does poorly on the test is still better prepared for college than a student who takes an easier course and receives a better grade. "There is a greater opportunity to expand self-directed learning skills," he said in an interview. "When taught well, these courses put students in the position of setting up their own experiments, searching for their own specialized materials in the library. You don't necessarily learn that in a regular high school course, not even in an honors course."
The Challenge Index starts from the premise that AP and IB are the most consistent measures of instructional quality for U.S. high schools. SATs, although popular with college admissions officers, are less useful in determining the quality of a school because they do not correspond to specific courses.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company