Charles County Schools Superintendent James E. Richmond has pushed for years to enroll more students in Advanced Placement (AP) courses and, according to the latest Washington Post Challenge Index ratings, the school district is finally seeing the fruits of his efforts.

The county has had the largest one-year jump among Washington area school districts in the number of AP exams given, 1,284 compared with 569 in the previous year. That moves the district up to 12th in the rankings of 22 jurisdictions, the highest of the three Southern Maryland counties.

The results are based on college-level tests given last May. The increase in the number of tests taken is significant because many students who sign up for the AP courses skip the difficult exams, which generally are not required for a grade.

Richmond was ecstatic about the increase, especially since the number of exams given had been barely increasing from the 526 taken in 1997 -- that is, until this year's surge. He has made increased AP participation a personal priority and directed his five high school principals to encourage students, particularly minority students, to take advantage of the courses.

"We went out to coach the kids to take the classes and provide support to them. This is what we wanted, by design," Richmond said.

In St. Mary's County, AP participation increased by 52 percent, with 651 students taking the exam compared with 428 in 2001. Last year for the first time, the district required all AP students to take the test and agreed to pay the testing fees. The district spent $47,039 in that effort.

Superintendent Patricia R. Richardson said the results were well worth that money, especially since there are students who otherwise could not afford to pay the $80-per-test fee. Chopticon High School still had the lowest number of exams, 107. Great Mills High School administered 270 exams, while Leonardtown High School administered 274.

The school district added five AP courses this school year, bringing the total number of offerings to 18.

In Calvert County, all three high schools administered a total of 833 exams, reflecting a 19 percent increase over 2001. Again, Patuxent High School in Lusby had the highest number of tests taken in one year in the county, 369. Northern High School had 257 tests taken and Calvert High School had 207.

Charles County high schools reversed last year's disappointing results in which four of the five schools had a decrease in the number of AP tests taken. This year, every school posted an increase.

Thomas Stone in Waldorf had a slight increase in 2001, but this year students there more than tripled the number of AP tests taken, going from 151 to 476. Henry E. Lackey High School more than doubled the number of AP exams, increasing from 75 in 2001 to 156 this year.

Overall Washington area participation in AP and International Baccalaureate (IB) programs, said by many experts to be a measure of how well schools are preparing students for college, soared again this year, giving the region one of the heaviest concentrations of college-level course offerings in the country. Washington area public schools gave 65,194 AP or IB tests in May 2002, a 27.4 percent increase from 2001. Nationally, about 40 percent of U.S. schools do not offer AP or IB, but only one of 156 local high schools, Ballou in Washington, had no college-level tests this year.

The new emphasis on college-level courses stems from the courses' unexpected success in some inner-city schools and the results of a 1999 U.S. Education Department study showing that students who take challenging courses in high school, no matter how well they do, are more likely to finish college than students with good grades and test scores who skip the most demanding classes.

AP began in 1956 as a program for a few elite public and private high schools, where able seniors and juniors were given college credit for some high-level courses. But average and below-average high schools, such as Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, portrayed in the film "Stand and Deliver," found the program helped their students too.

The IB program started in 1968 as a high-level, standard curriculum for high schools around the world that catered to the children of diplomats and international business executives. At just 350 schools in the United States, the IB program is much smaller than the AP program, which has more than 13,000 participating schools. But IB is growing particularly in the Washington area where there are 21 IB public schools and the District's Banneker High School has just begun an IB program.

Both AP and IB courses are taught by high school teachers who must prepare students for final exams written and scored by outside experts. A panel of the National Research Council recommended this year that AP and IB courses become deeper and more conceptual, and some private schools say the curricula are too restrictive, but no other programs have proved so popular in the last decade.

Last May, 1,585,516 AP tests in 35 subjects were given to 937,951 students nationwide. That same month, 67,697 IB exams in about two dozen subjects were given to 25,024 students.

"This is by far the most successful and trusted high school program in America," said Peter Negoni, senior vice president for K-12 programs at the College Board, which created AP. "We believe that this program should be available to all children in this country."

Staff writer Jay Mathews contributed to this report.