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.

Throughout the country, and particularly in the Washington area, the AP program and its smaller counterpart, International Baccalaureate, are spreading rapidly. Many high schools have embraced the idea of giving these college-level courses to high school students in order to prepare them for university demands, and even earn them college credit. But the degree of commitment to these programs varies widely from school to school, and district to district.

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.

The index compares high schools by taking the number of AP and IB tests each school's students take in a year and dividing by the number of graduating seniors. The resulting score quantifies how much a particular school -- no matter its size or location -- is seeking to challenge its students. This year, I've added a second, smaller list of those private schools for which I could get the necessary data. I wanted to see how they performed in relation to their public counterparts -- and discovered they had differences over the use of AP and IB as sharp as those in public schools. I also put Jefferson High in Fairfax, a public school, on the private school list because its admissions policy effectively rules out marginal students and makes it the equivalent of a private school .

Many conscientious educators still have doubts about AP and IB. They worry that some students might become so weary of the workload they will lose interest in the subject altogether. They say opening such courses to B and C students would force teachers to slow down and deprive the fastest young minds of the enrichment they deserve. They wonder if there are enough teachers capable of such high-level instruction.

The effect of those doubts can be seen at Courtney Lancos's school, Atholton High. In 1998, the latest year for which data is available from all districts, the Columbia school had 258 graduating seniors but only 125 AP tests were taken. Its Challenge Index rating was 0.484. That relatively low number of tests and below-average index rating are surprising because more than 60 percent of Atholton seniors go to four-year colleges and only 5 percent of the student body is poor enough to qualify for federally subsidized lunches. Several other schools in Howard and Anne Arundel counties, as well as some other parts of Maryland, gave fewer AP tests than would be expected in schools sending so many students to college.

McLean High in Fairfax County, a school similar to Atholton in size, gave nearly four times as many AP tests. Falls Church High, with a slightly smaller portion of college-bound seniors than Atholton, had a much higher Challenge Index ranking. Even Mount Vernon High in Fairfax, with one-third of its students poor enough for federally subsidized lunches, left Atholton far behind. Mount Vernon had 428 IB and AP tests and the eighth highest Challenge Index rating in the region.

Why such differences between similar schools in different parts of the region? Many of the Northern Virginia numbers are easy to explain. Fairfax County Superintendent Daniel A. Domenech and his predecessor, Robert R. "Bud" Spillane, encouraged schools to open the courses to all interested students. Domenech persuaded the school board to provide an extra $1.2 million to pay all test fees and require that all AP students take the 1999 tests. The IB program already requires test-taking. Arlington, Prince William and Clarke counties and the city of Falls Church have also shown strong support for AP and IB.

Atholton Principal Constance E. Lewis said she also was concerned about Lancos's AP English class last year and has assigned a different teacher to this year's class. Lewis said she did not know why her school gave fewer AP tests than Virginia schools with similar college-oriented student bodies, but thought her disadvantaged student population was much higher than the free lunch figures indicated. She said she wanted to be sure that students were ready for AP, and not just lured in by a college credit. "I don't want kids taking the class just for the sake of taking the test," she said.

In Anne Arundel County, budget problems may have been a factor in its below-average AP numbers, said Tom Rhoades, director of program planning for the county schools. Up until 1986, the school system paid AP fees and required students to take the tests. "I would have preferred that we could have kept paying, but there was not enough money to pay for the exams, so that is water over the dam," he said.

Most American schools still give very few AP or IB tests, and 42 percent give none at all. Most schools still exclude many eager or capable students from such courses. Many AP teachers, like Lancos's English instructor, do not require much of their students and do not encourage them to take the college-level examinations.

A significant number of educators, particularly in suburban and private schools with good reputations, see AP, like the SAT, as one more marketing ploy by a power-mad College Board. The nonprofit, New York-based corporation and its test-making partner, the Educational Testing Service (ETS), come in for much criticism because of their influence over the college application process. The more AP grows, the more it becomes a target for complaints.

When I asked Susan Mentzer-Blair, a counselor at Middletown High in Frederick County, what she thought of the AP program, her faxed reply spoke for many school personnel: "I wish I were ETS -- -they make a fortune from a monopoly which most kids, parents, educators and, obviously, newspapers buy into." One Washington private school official told me AP was "a racket" that brought in big money by encouraging schools to push their students beyond their limits.

Some private school officials, while respectful of parent and student demands for nationally certified courses and tests, say many of their own courses are better than AP. Marjo Talbott, head of the Maret School in the District, said that "we have a much broader elective system" with "lots more writing and lots more reading than these courses where they have to teach kids to the test."

Yet those private schools that have put AP or IB at the center of their curricula say it works for them with no unnecessary strain on students or teachers, despite the extraordinary number of tests taken each year. The Washington International School requires every student to complete six IB courses for graduation, with final examinations sometimes stretching over two days. "Stress is a factor," said David Merkel, the deputy head of the school, "but we make sure that everyone we take into our program has the help they need to be successful."

The Rev. Peter Weigand, headmaster of St. Anselm's Abbey School in the District, said his school's unusual commitment to AP "is an evaluation for us. It helps show we are doing what we are supposed to be doing."

Each year he watches a couple of dozen boys go off to college happy to have taken many more AP courses than graduates of better-known schools. He said he has heard the argument that AP is a money-making device feeding on the insecurities of college-obsessed parents, but he is not convinced.

"I don't know how to say this nicely," he said, "but any outside evaluation is threatening." Many teachers don't like demanding curricula and examinations, he said, because "they are afraid they might come up short."

Jay Mathews writes about education for The Post's Metro staff. He can be reached at mathewsj@wash- post.com.

The Challenge Index

How demanding are Washington area high schools? Here each public high school is ranked by a number that reflects how much a school encourages students to take Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses and their tests. The rating is not a measurement of the quality of a school overall or the achievements of its students and faculty -- it is strictly focused on AP and IB courses. The rating is determined by dividing the number of AP and IB tests taken by students at a school in 1998 by the number of students in the school's 1998 graduating class.

Compared with high schools across the country, Washington area schools overall are among the most encouraging of AP and IB testing. For instance, any school with a rating of 1.000 or above is in at least the top 3 percent of all U.S. high schools in encouraging students to take AP and IB courses.

Also listed are the name of the school district and the percentage of a school's students whose family incomes are low enough to qualify for federally subsidized lunches and who also apply for that program. The number of subsidized-lunch applicants is provided as a rough indicator of the socioeconomic factors that may affect a school's performance or expectations. The number of such applicants usually understates the portion of poor children in a given school.

Guide to chart: One asterisk means more IB than AP tests. Two asterisks means college courses taught at the high school substitute for AP and IB. The number in parentheses is the school's 1997 rank. Fifteen schools are new to the index this year.

School District Index Federally Subsidized Lunches (%)

1 George Mason* (1) Falls Church 3.412 10%

2 Richard Montgomery* (3) Montgomery 3.025 13%

3 H-B Woodlawn (2) Arlington 2.773 13%

4 Langley (4) Fairfax 1.72 61%

5 Yorktown (7) Arlington 1.653 13%

6 McLean (8) Fairfax 1.581 10%

7 West Potomac (5) Fairfax 1.479 30%

9 Mount Vernon* (19) Fairfax 1.441 33%

8 Banneker D.C. 1.438 31%

10 Whitman (17) Montgomery 1.357 2%

11 Stuart* (43) Fairfax 1.271 54%

12 Clarke County* Clarke 1.264 10%

13 Madison (6) Fairfax 1.249 7%

14 Montgomery Blair (15) Montgomery 1.239 24%

15 West Springfield (31) Fairfax 1.215 6%

16 Wootton (12) Montgomery 1.203 3%

17 Washington-Lee* (24) Arlington 1.201 40%

18 Walter Johnson (20) Montgomery 1.174 6%

19 Woodson (13) Fairfax 1.169 7%

20 Lake Braddock (37) Fairfax 1.136 13%

21 Churchill (10) Montgomery 1.135 2%

22 Eleanor Roosevelt (16) Prince George's 1.126 19%

23 Robinson (23) Fairfax 1.111 8%

24 Centennial (30) Howard 1.106 2%

25 Oakton (11) Fairfax 1.101 8%

26 Herndon (38) Fairfax 1.093 13%

27 Bethesda-Chevy Chase (21) Montgomery 1.069 11%

28 Chantilly (29) Fairfax 1.064 8%

29 Hylton (28) Prince William 1.008 7.5%

30 Wakefield (45) Arlington 0.985 41%

31 Centreville (18) Fairfax 0.985 10%

32 Woodbridge (33) Prince William 0.966 15%

33 Wilson (9) D.C. 0.962 15%

34 Stonewall Jackson* (32) Prince William 0.955 17%

35 Central* (26) Prince George's 0.945 42%

36 Quince Orchard (34) Montgomery 0.886 10%

37 Fairfax (41) Fairfax 0.867 18%

38 Gar-Field (39) Prince William 0.832 15%

39 Magruder (49) Montgomery 0.820 15%

40 Brentsville (36) Prince William 0.786 5%

41 Poolesville (27) Montgomery 0.781 4%

42 Thomas Johnson Frederick 0.778 11%

43 Falls Church (35) Fairfax 0.749 35%

44 Hayfield (67) Fairfax 0.737 23%

45 Marshall (14) Fairfax 0.735 25%

46 South Lakes (22) Fairfax 0.730 16%

47 School Without Walls (25) D.C. 0.720 0%

48 Lee (61) Fairfax 0.719 22%

49 Severna Park (46) Anne Arundl 0.717 2%

50 Middletown Frederick 0.704 3%

51 Loudoun County (65) Loudoun 0.699 11%

52 Sherwood (42) Montgomery 0.694 9%

53 Springbrook (54) Montgomery 0.681 23%

54 River Hill Howard 0.659 2%

55 Walkersville Frederick 0.650 8%

56 Manassas Park** Manassas Park 0.647 24%

57 Broadneck (44) Anne Arundel 0.645 2%

58 Wilde Lake (76) Howard 0.631 15%

59 Bell Multicultural (50) D.C.0.625 97%

60 Frederick Frederick 0.620 17%

61 Annandale (87) Fairfax 0.616 33%

62 Mount Hebron (70) Howard 0.613 6%

63 Fauquier (48) Fauquier 0.612 7%

64 Osbourn Park (55) Prince William 0.608 11%

65 Annapolis (59) Anne Arundel 0.583 11%

66 Liberty (47) Fauquier 0.581 11%

67 South River (51) Anne Arundel 0.576 3%

68 Linganore Frederick 0.571 6%

69 High Point (86) Prince George's 0.570 49%

70 Laurel (101) Prince George's 0.556 25%

71 North Stafford Stafford 0.551 6%

72 Einstein (53) Montgomery 0.548 27%

73 Potomac (81) Prince William 0.542 24%

74 Loudoun Valley (40) Loudoun 0.536 6%

75 Rockville (62) Montgomery 0.536 20%

76 McDonough (85) Charles 0.534 9%

77 T. C. Williams (57) Alexandria 0.529 32%

78 Edison (58) Fairfax 0.517 25%

79 Oakland Mills (71) Howard 0.517 11%

80 Stafford Stafford 0.494 10%

81 Northern (69) Calvert 0.493 6%

82 Atholton (73) Howard 0.484 5%

83 Seneca Valley (79) Montgomery 0.468 15%

84 Old Mill (77) Anne Arundel 0.460 7%

85 Paint Branch (52) Montgomery 0.453 10%

86 Brooke Point Stafford 0.436 11%

87 Westlake (56) Charles 0.431 7%

88 Watkins Mill (72 )Montgomery 0.431 15%

89 Parkdale (99) Prince George's 0.427 53%

90 Leonardtown (66) St. Mary's 0.415 12%

91 Broad Run (63) Loudoun 0.411 3%

92 Chesapeake (68) Anne Arundel 0.398 3%

93 Southern (93) Anne Arundel 0.387 7%

94 Lackey (60) Charles 0.378 25%

95 Kennedy (74) Montgomery 0.372 20%

96 Bowie (89) Prince George's 0.351 15%

97 Friendly (112) Prince George's 0.341 18%

98 Hammond (94) Howard 0.341 7%

99 Damascus (78) Montgomery 0.329 5%

100 Northeast (80) Anne Arundel 0.315 6%

101 Suitland* (102) Prince George's 0.312 34%

102 Osbourn (95) Manassas City 0.310 9%

103 La Plata (83) Charles 0.309 13%

104 Glenelg (64) Howard 0.305 2%

105 Stone (98) Charles 0.297 15%

106 Arundel (88) Anne Arundel 0.295 3%

107 DuVal (109) Prince George's 0.295 32%

108 Park View (82) Loudoun 0.292 10%

109 Surrattsville (91) Prince George's 0.290 15%

110 Howard (107) Howard 0.283 7%

111 Great Mills (84) St. Mary's 0.279 23%

112 Oxon Hill (75) Prince George's 0.277 23%

113 North County (108) Anne Arundel 0.275 9%

114 Gaithersburg (96) Montgomery 0.271 19%

115 Eastern (106) D.C. 0.268 61%

116 Chopticon (97) St. Mary's 0.246 10%

117 Cardozo (105) D.C. 0.231 51%

118 Catoctin Frederick 0.209 12%

119 Northwestern (92) Prince George's 0.208 53%

120 Calvert (90) Calvert 0.208 10%

121 Brunswick Frederick 0.186 11%

122 Meade (104) Anne Arundel 0.181 17%

123 Potomac (120) Prince George's 0.146 47%

124 Ellington (115) D.C. 0.144 33%

125 Wheaton (100) Montgomery 0.142 34%

126 Douglass (103) Prince George's 0.139 16%

127 Glen Burnie (110) Anne Arundel 0.137 8%

128 Long Reach Howard 0.133 15%

129 Largo (113) Prince George's 0.131 20%

130 Roosevelt (118) D.C. 0.097 37%

131 Anacostia (114) D.C.0.094 45%

132 Gwynn Park (116) Prince George's 0.087 12%

133 Crossland (119) Prince George's 0.063 34%

134 Ballou (121) D.C. 0.0584 8%

135 Bladensburg (124) Prince George's 0.058 41%

136 Fairmont Heights (111) Prince George's 0.055 37%

137 Forestville (123) Prince George's 0.053 42%

138 Dunbar (122) D.C. 0.040 37%

139 Coolidge (117) D.C. 0.016 17%

(Spingarn and Woodson high schools in the District, like slightly less than half of all U.S. secondary schools, gave no AP or IB tests in 1998.)

Selected Private Schools

School District Index

Washington International* D.C. 6.000

St. Anselm's Abbey D.C. 5.556

Jefferson (public) Fairfax 5.124

Potomac School McLean 3.864

Georgetown Preparatory Rockville 3.608

St. Albans D.C. 3.514

Episcopal Alexandria 3.460

Georgetown Day D.C. 3.287

Madeira School McLean 3.014

Sidwell Friends D.C. 2.800

Newport Preparatory Kensington 2.767

Holton-Arms Bethesda 2.443

Stone Ridge Bethesda 2.317

Gonzaga D.C. 1.847

Bullis Potomac 1.746

Severn Severna Park 1.670

Georgetown Visitation D.C. 1.586

Maret D.C. 1.493

Good Counsel Wheaton 1.352

Bishop O'Connell Arlington 1.324

Bishop Ireton Alexandria 1.220

St. Vincent Pallotti Laurel 1.145

Archbishop Spalding Severn 0.675

DeMatha Hyattsville 0.559

St. John's D.C. 0.456

Bishop McNamara Forestville 0.252

*International Baccalaureate school