Rachel Hines devoted long hours to her 6,235-word paper on the weak response to Nazi atrocities in the Lodz ghetto of Poland. She endured an oral examination on her exhaustive research and then saw the work published in an international journal.
Her experience was typical for a university graduate student -- except it occurred when Hines was a senior at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville.
Across the country, new emphasis on rigorous college-preparation programs has resulted in thousands of high school students succeeding at the kinds of scholarly research that master's degree candidates tackle, educators say, even as some worry about the strain placed on 17-year-olds.
A leading indicator is the growing number of high schools using the International Baccalaureate program, which includes a 4,000-word paper, called an extended essay, among its requirements. About 10,000 of these papers were written this year in the United States, six times as many as in 1990. In the Washington region, at least 20 public high schools have IB programs, and several more public and private schools are encouraging long research papers in selected classes.
Hines, now a senior double major in physiology/neurobiology and anthropology at the University of Maryland, said her high school's IB classes "demanded as high, if not at times higher, standards than I and others have experienced in college classes."
Much of the impetus for high school research reports is coming from an educational entrepreneur in Sudbury, Mass., Will Fitzhugh. Since 1987, he has published 638 papers written by high school students -- including Hines -- from 34 countries in his quarterly journal, the Concord Review.
Fitzhugh said he began the journal, which he has struggled to finance, to counter what he considered feeble instruction and low standards in high school composition and research. He also has assembled a panel of readers, called the National Writing Board, that sends to colleges its independent assessments of research submitted by high school students.
"I think people are just beginning to realize that while high school kids are taking Advanced Placement calculus and AP Latin and AP European history, their academic writing is frozen at the seventh-grade level," Fitzhugh said.
Many high school educators have applauded long writing projects. Dwight Wagner, the magnet program coordinator at Parkdale High School in Prince George's County, said his IB students are frightened at first by the idea of writing 4,000 words -- about 15 to 20 double-spaced pages -- and have trouble narrowing their topics. "We tell them that they must think in terms of firing with a rifle by hitting a small target but hitting it very hard," Wagner said.
Dan Meier, principal of Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax County, said his IB students are able to get the work done because "we have set deadlines throughout the junior and senior years and broken the paper into doable pieces."
Some educators, however, say it is too much work.
Denise Clark Pope, a lecturer at Stanford University's education school and author of " 'Doing School': How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students," said she likes giving high-schoolers a chance to go deep into a subject of their choosing. But in her view, International Baccalaureate and similar programs stuff too many extra deadlines into already full schedules.
"It turns into another hoop that you leap through that makes you look good for college admissions, and then everybody wants to do it," she said.
One big writing project, some teachers say, might not be as useful as many little ones.
Daniel J. McMahon, principal of DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, said he teaches a world literature class influenced by "research that suggests that students improve their writing and learn to think better if they do numerous short writings." He assigns 30 two-page papers during the school year, plus two five-page papers.
McMahon said he thinks long-form research is best taught to most students in college.
Fitzhugh disagreed. Too many high school teachers, he said, assign "creative and personal and journal writing" instead of "old-fashioned term papers." The result, Fitzhugh said, "is that about 30 percent of college freshmen now need remedial writing courses, and most professors complain that practically all of their students seem to understand very little about reading for and writing a research paper of any kind."
Many school systems are toughening their writing programs.
Prince William County requires 11th-graders to do a research paper of four to seven pages with a minimum of five cited research sources. Michael Ortiz, who teaches AP English at The Heights School in Potomac, said he and the school headmaster, Alvaro de Vicente, decided last week to have his seniors do a 10-page paper as a trial run for a larger program.
Bill Rhatican, convinced of the motivational power of publication, self-published a paperback book this year, "And Still They Come," full of essays on immigration by seniors in his AP government class at West Potomac High School in Fairfax County.
Rachel Hines's paper published in the Concord Review was titled "The Great Delusion: Chaim Rumkowski's Attempt to Save the Jews of Lodz." She said she got the idea from chats with her grandfather, who lost most of his family when the Nazis killed nearly every Jew in that city.
She was fascinated by Rumkowski's attempts to appease the Nazis rather than rebel, as did some other Lodz ghetto leaders. She worked with translations of primary documents and had so much material it was hard to get the paper under the word limit. She moved much of what she had to the endnotes.
"I loved my paper because of its personal significance to me, but I never presumed it would get published," she said. "It was just a really neat feeling to see my name in print." Her sister, Cara, graduated in the spring from Richard Montgomery. She too has written a paper, "Antietam as the Turning Point of the Civil War," which is scheduled for publication in the review.
Hines said she and her sister discovered through their projects "a critical approach to learning and reading anything from literature to scientific journal publications. I think programs like the IB will continue to grow because people see the success of its graduates as they go on to college and the ease of the academic transition from high school to college."