Four years ago, High Point High School in Prince George's County became dissatisfied enough with its Advanced Placement (AP) program to do something about it. High Point had many college level AP courses, but typical of American high schools, most of its students either did not take the courses or skipped out on the difficult AP exams, which are not required for a grade.
The school created a packet of information to explain the courses to parents and students, developed clearer rules for admission and required AP students to put down a $20 deposit on their test fee in the fall to keep them from avoiding the test in the spring.
The school's AP results this year, one of the few bright spots in Prince George's County's struggle to increase college-level courses, show how much the effort paid off. The number of AP tests administered at High Point was 37 percent higher than two years before, the school's rating on The Washington Post's annual Challenge Index list was the highest ever, 0.798, and it has been recognized by the Siemens Corp. for its efforts in involving more minority students in the program.
"A culture has been created at High Point where the taking of the exam is a program expectation," said High Point Principal William Ryan. "High Point has delivered this program to a student body that is one of the most diverse in the Washington metropolitan area." At High Point, 61 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced lunch, an indicator of poverty.
Although High Point and a few other Prince George's schools have had some success with AP and its counterpart, International Baccalaureate (IB), the rest of the county's public high schools did not show similar results. The county school system increased the number of AP and IB tests this year by less than 2 percent, while other public school systems in the Washington area saw percentage increases of 20 percent and more. According to the Challenge Index, Prince George's participation rates for AP and IB ranked last among the 22 local school districts in 2002.
So far, only one Prince George's high school, Eleanor Roosevelt, has reached a Challenge Index rating of at least 1.000, meaning that the school averaged more than one AP or IB test per graduating senior. That participation level has been achieved by only about 5 percent of U.S. schools, but in the Washington area, 51 percent of the 156 public high schools have reached that level.
An Oct. 8 report by the Prince George's County Public Schools emphasized increases in average scores on the AP exams, rather than the failure to significantly increase participation. Looking at the percentage of students who scored 3 or higher on the tests' scale of 1 to 5 points, chief accountability officer Leroy J. Tompkins and testing, research and evaluation director Valeria A. Ford said they found "significant improvements" in average scores, the number of 3 and above scores and the percentage of 3 and above scores.
The report said that the portion of scores 3 or above increased from 43 to 49 percent. The statewide percentage is 71 percent, the report said. It said the county schools with the highest percentage of AP students taking the AP tests were High Point, Friendly, Potomac and Laurel, in descending order.
Ryan said that High Point increased both its passing rate and its participation rate by scheduling more class time for AP courses. Double periods are used for five courses, English, U.S. history, calculus, biology and chemistry, he said.
Overall, Washington area participation in AP and 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 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 only one of 156 local schools, Ballou in D.C., 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 a 1999 U.S. Department of Education study by Clifford Adelman showing that students who take hard 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. But average and below-average high schools, such as East Los Angeles's Garfield High School as portrayed in the film "Stand and Deliver," found the program helped their students too.
The IB 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, with just 350 schools, than the AP program, with more than 13,000 schools. But it is growing, particularly in the Washington area where there are 21 IB public schools and where the District's Banneker High School has just begun an IB program.
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 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 in the United States. That same month 67,697 IB exams were given to 25,024 American 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."