As educators, parents and students look forward to a holiday respite from the national bickering over standardized tests, we ought to consider, for a happy yuletide moment, the progress we have made in encouraging a different and much more vibrant kind of testing.

These more congenial exams raise school standards without being compulsory, energize teachers without dumbing down lessons and make the senior year of high school more rigorous than it has ever been. And yet, flunking one of these tests is not going to deprive anyone of a high school diploma. I am referring to the college-level examinations, particularly the Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) programs, that have spread without much notice or objection to more than 60 percent of American high schools and are, I think, pointing toward a new era in American secondary education.

This week The Washington Post publishes its sixth annual Challenge Index list, which ranks Washington area public schools based on AP and IB participation. While the state standardized tests required by the federal government's new No Child Left Behind law focus on helping every child reach a minimum level of achievement--in essence, raising the floor of the American school system--the AP and IB tests raise the ceiling for students who can be coaxed to take at least one somewhat scary course and test that will prepare them for the trauma of college.

Next year there are plans for another national Challenge Index list in Newsweek magazine. I hope any U.S. high school that gave as many AP or IB tests this year as it had graduating seniors will send the exact numbers of tests and June graduates to me at mathewsj@washpost.com. But for now I want to discuss the remarkable Washington area results, which will be published in most Extra sections of The Post this Thursday. They will also be posted on washingtonpost.com's Challenge Index page. [LINK HERE PLEASE to http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/education/kto12/challengeindex/

To get the Challenge Index rating of a high school, calculate how many AP or IB tests were given in May and divide by the number of seniors who graduate in June. I count all the tests, not just those taken by seniors. Dividing by the number of graduates eliminates the advantage that large schools like Woodbridge High in Prince William County, with 576 graduates last June, would otherwise have over little schools like Poolesville High in Montgomery County, with just 145 graduates.

The last time I did a national list for Newsweek in 2000, there were just under 500 public schools in the country--2 percent of the national total--that had Challenge Index ratings of 1.000 or above, meaning they gave at least as many AP or IB tests that year as they had graduating seniors. That number has increased since, although the early returns from schools around the country suggest it is not any higher than 5 percent.

But in the Washington area, the number of schools at that level has soared far beyond my expectations. Last year, 59 of 150 Washington area public schools, or 39.3 percent, had ratings of 1.000 or above. This year, the figure is 80 of 157 schools, or 51 percent, 10 times as large as the estimated national percentage. The Washington area has the advantage of some of the highest income and education levels in the country, but other American suburbs similarly blessed have come nowhere near raising the level of high school instruction that high. The Challenge Index rating for the entire Washington area is now 1.295. There are some states that do not have even one public school at that level.

You have to be inside the schools to appreciate what AP and IB do to the usual meandering let's-get-through-this-please classroom culture. "IB classes set me on fire!" said Phil Krauth, an English teacher at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington County. Amy Kaplan, who had taken seven AP courses at Woodson High School in Fairfax County, said, "I feel I will be better able to adjust to college having already experienced both the workload and the expectations of college level courses." Dan Shea, the principal of Quince Orchard High School in Montgomery County, said many students "have developed a real keen sense of their own worth" after being welcomed into AP courses once reserved for what were considered the smart kids. AP and IB have their flaws. Some teachers, particularly in private schools, feel they cannot be creative when forced to prepare students for long tests written by outsiders. Many colleges are still confused about how much course credit to give for AP and IB, although their admissions officers love to see college level courses on transcripts. A panel of the National Research Council recommended this year that advanced high school courses become deeper and more conceptual, although the members admitted their real complaint was about the structure of the freshman year college courses that AP is obliged to mimic.

And many teenagers blame AP or IB, as well as their parents, for the bothersome demands of growing up. Dan Meddis, a Woodson High School senior taking four AP courses, said, "The schizophrenic mentality of the middle class Fairfax County parent dictates that burdening their children with college courses is the only way to avert their rejection from Yale, and then the homelessness and certain starvation that almost always follows it."

The few complaints have had little effect on the growing popularity of college level courses in high school. I asked in a previous column if anyone could think of a program in the past decade that has had as positive an impact on American public high schools as AP. No one came up with anything.

The best AP and IB educators realize that college level courses and tests are not just for A students. Smart teachers, principals, superintendents and school board members know that most of their B and C students want to go to college and that taking an college-level course in high school is vital to their chance of getting a bachelor's degree.

Research shows that even a student who struggles in an AP or IB course and does poorly in the exam is better off than if he or she had not taken the course. U.S. Education Department researcher Clifford Adelman's 1999 analysis of data from 8,700 former high school students revealed that the best predictor of college completion was not how good their high school grades or SAT scores were, but how difficult their high school courses were. The harder the courses, the better they did in college. This was particularly true for minority students.

The Washington area has many educators who sensed this even before Adelman published his research. Among the earliest advocates of AP and IB were superintendents Robert "Bud" Spillane in Fairfax County, Arthur Gosling in Arlington County, Ed Kelly in Prince William County and Eleanor Smalley in Clarke County. Spillane's successor Dan Domenech and Gosling's successor Rob Smith have taken their programs even further. A key moment came in 1998, when the Fairfax County School Board, at Domenech's urging, agreed to pay for all AP and IB test fees. That policy has since spread to other districts, allowing schools to require that all AP students take the AP tests and thus ensure they get the full treatment--a cold splash of collegiate academic reality.

If we want to be thankful for something, as we finish off the turkey leftovers, I suggest this: despite our worries about teenagers falling prey to drugs and alcohol and sloth and prurience and federally mandated graduation tests, one significant change in the quality of courses in American high schools has given more and more of our children much better preparation for college than we had.

And if the rapid growth of AP and IB in the Washington area is any indication, that national transformation in expectations and instruction is just getting started.