Lisa Choe didn't go to senior prom. She skipped the graduation parties and didn't bother getting a senior ring. None of that mattered because her closest friends at River Hill High School in Clarksville are juniors, still sitting in school, members of the Class of 2006 -- the class that Choe was supposed to graduate with.
Instead, Choe, 16, walked across the stage at Merriweather Post Pavilion wearing a sky blue cap and gown last week to accept her diploma with the Class of 2005, officially ending her three-year sprint through high school.
"I feel like it's over," she said the day before she graduated. "I'm not necessarily with seniors, but I'm still doing those kind of fun things that are supposed to end senior year."
Choe is no Doogie Howser kid genius seeking to win the Nobel Prize before her 21st birthday. But she is representative of the handful of students across the Washington area who graduate early from high school. Some leave to get a jump on careers. Others have taken so many accelerated courses that they already qualify for sophomore college courses. And for some, well, they're just so over high school.
"Everyone tells you that high school is the best four years of your life, and I'm like, 'I'm only getting three years of it.' . . . But there's so much more to life," said Becca LaCreta, 17, who plans to graduate early this year from T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria.
Many students who decide to graduate early say they had a specific motivation: 17-year-old Eleni Vagias left Yorktown High School in Arlington after three years because she was being courted by modeling agencies. LaCreta plans to enroll in a program at Virginia Tech that would allow her to get undergraduate and master's degrees in five years before heading to the Peace Corps. Teresa Oaxaca, 17, who will graduate early from H.B. Woodlawn in Arlington, will head to art school in Florence for a year before applying to traditional colleges.
Critics of high schools say that academic standards have slipped and that traditional curricula are not rigorous. President Bush has pushed for more standardized testing, and many states, including Virginia, have implemented "exit exams" in such core subjects as English and math that students must pass to receive a high school diploma. Maryland plans to start requiring similar tests in 2009; the District does not require such exams.
And so, some students wonder, what is the point of staying in high school?
Choe, who made a perfect score on the old version of the SAT, said she no longer felt challenged by the courses at River Hill, a key factor in her decision to leave early.
Vagias said she had accrued 30 hours of college credit through AP courses by the end of her junior year in high school. She was slated to take six more AP classes senior year, the equivalent of a semester of college.
"That would've been crazy," she said. "I realized I didn't have to do that."
Instead, Vagias took two correspondence courses -- English and government -- during the spring of her junior year to complete her graduation requirements and received her diploma months later with the Class of 2004.
"People always ask me, 'Don't you want a senior year?' " said Vagias, who attends George Mason University. "It wasn't an issue to me."
Still, she sometimes gets nostalgic for the friends and life she left behind. She plans to return to her alma mater to watch her former classmates graduate this year and even planned to attend prom with them.
High school guidance counselors caution that making the jump from high school to college is about more than academics. Senior year is also about playing on varsity sports teams and beefing up resumes with internships and extracurricular activities. And most of all, they say, senior year gives students time to grow up and say goodbye to childhood.
"There are always questions about whether a student is developmentally ready to leave high school and go on to a college campus," said Judy Hingle, director of professional development for the National Association of College Admission Counseling. "That's always a big transition, even for the most mature student."
Hingle said that there are no statistics that track the number of students nationwide who graduate early each year. High schools typically don't push the idea, and their complicated schedules sometimes make it difficult for even the brightest students to finish their coursework early. LaCreta has to give up her lunch period to fit in all of her classes: She usually shovels down pasta salad or macaroni and cheese during her AP government class instead.
Sixteen-year-old Jack Goodman had planned to finish high school one year early ever since he was a freshman at Glenelg Country School in Howard County. When he was in sixth grade, he did two years' worth of traditional middle school math course work and was in AP calculus by ninth grade.
But in the spring of his sophomore year, Goodman decided against graduating early. He thought about the stress of applying to colleges in the fall. He pictured waving good-bye to his family and friends and giving up his place on the track team. And he realized that he couldn't leave.
"That reality kind of set in, and I decided it wasn't for me," said Goodman, who will begin his senior year in the fall. "I don't feel I would be emotionally ready for college in a lot of ways."
Goodman will intern at the Applied Physics Laboratory of Johns Hopkins University and take humanities classes at Glenelg Country School next school year. He plans to keep practicing guitar -- he played "Let the Good Times Roll" by B.B. King at the school talent show -- and is looking forward to the senior class expedition.
Hingle said that research on brain maturation -- as well as her own anecdotal experiences -- shows that girls are ready earlier than boys to make long-term decisions that carry hefty consequences. But to Goodman, the explanation is much simpler:
"Why do you have to go a year early?" he asked. "You have your whole life to study stuff."