Fairfax High School has had a good Advanced Placement program for several years, but participation in its college-level courses lagged behind many other schools in Fairfax County.
This year, that changed. Fairfax High nearly doubled the number of AP tests in just one year, from 540 to 1,006, with many new subjects added to the mix.
"Our AP teachers have attended myriad workshops in the past years to prepare themselves for the rigors of the AP program and the increase in student numbers and diversity," said Fairfax High AP coordinator Gertrude Brown, who led the turnaround along with several teachers and counselors who worked long hours at the school in Fairfax City. "All our teachers . . . frequently make themselves available after school to work with students who have not previously enrolled in AP or honors courses."
Such attention to student needs, plus interest by colleges in International Baccalaureate or AP students and Fairfax County's unusual policy of subsidizing IB and AP test fees, have led to a 19 percent increase in the number of college-level tests in the county this year. In The Washington Post's annual Challenge Index, which is a measure of AP and IB participation, Fairfax's rating of 2.509 puts it higher than all other Washington area jurisdictions except Arlington and Falls Church.
The highest ranked high school on the area list this year, as in previous years, was George Mason, the only high school in the Falls Church school district. George Mason uses the IB program, a counterpart to AP, and had a rating of 4.365. In the last national Challenge Index rankings by Newsweek magazine, in 2000, George Mason had the second-highest rating in the country.
Part of the increase in Fairfax County has been a big jump in the Challenge Index rating for schools such as Fairfax, Chantilly, Falls Church (a county school), Herndon and W.T. Woodson. Woodson went from administering 786 to 1,197 AP tests in just one year and now ranks third on the Washington area Challenge Index list with a rating of 3.448.
Woodson and Fairfax high schools, as well as other county schools, boosted their AP programs by introducing the new AP World History course for sophomores. In some Woodson classes, students could take a combined AP World History-English 10 honors course, interlacing developments in history and literature.
Carol Mallory, Woodson's director of student services, said the growth of AP at Woodson "reflects the focus of this school community on the value of education and an awareness of the role that AP courses play in both preparing students for college and in getting students into the college of their choice."
Woodson students said they agreed with this, but not all of them are happy about it.
"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," said senior Dan Meddis, who is taking four AP courses this year.
Amy Kaplan, a senior who has taken seven AP courses at Woodson, said she appreciated the challenge nonetheless.
"I feel like I will be better able to adjust to college having already experienced both the workload and the expectations of college-level courses," she said.
A measure of Fairfax's prominence on the Challenge Index list is that all 24 county high schools rated above 1.000, meaning they averaged more than one AP or IB test per graduating senior, a participation level achieved by only about 5 percent of U.S. schools.
Several Fairfax high schools have reached that level despite large numbers of students from poor and immigrant families. Annandale High IB coordinator Erin Albright said 42 percent of her IB students are from families in which English is not the first language.
Participation in AP and IB programs -- said by many analysts to be a measure of how well schools are preparing students for college -- soared again this year in the Washington area, giving the region possibly the heaviest concentration of college-level courses in the country.
Washington area public schools gave 65,194 AP or IB tests in May 2002, a 25 percent increase from 2001. Nationally, about 40 percent of U.S. schools do not offer AP or IB, but locally, only one of 156 schools -- Ballou High in the District -- had no college-level tests this year.
The new emphasis on college-level courses stems from their unexpected success in some inner-city schools and a 1999 U.S. Department of Education study by Clifford Adelman showing that students who take difficult courses in high school, no matter how well they do, are more likely to finish college than students with good high school 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 seniors and juniors were given college credit for some high-level courses so they would not be bored by having to cover the same material in college.
Average and below-average high schools -- such as Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, portrayed in the motion picture "Stand and Deliver" -- found that 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.
In the United States, it is much smaller (350 schools) than the AP program (more than 13,000 schools), but it is growing, particularly in the Washington area, where there are 21 IB public schools. 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 exams written and scored by outside experts. A panel of the National Research Council recommended this year that AP and IB courses be made deeper and more conceptual. Some private schools say their curriculums are too restrictive, but no other programs have proved so popular in the last decade.
In May, 1,585,516 AP tests in 35 subjects were given to 937,951 students nationally. That same month, 67,697 IB exams were given to 25,024 students.
AP 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."