Fayette County, Ga., population 106,567, resembles many Washington-area suburbs. It has lovely trees, expensive cars and good schools. Most of the residents are middle-class. They set high standards for their kids. But what is happening to one particular Fayette County student is sadly at odds with the way ambitious students are treated here.
Jacqueline Berthold, a sophomore at Starr’s Mill High School, has a grade point average of 92 on a 100 point scale, including a 93 in English. Like many students showing academic promise, she wants the challenge of taking Advanced Placement English Language next year. In the Washington area, that would be no problem. Anyone who wants to take a college-level course like AP, International Baccalaureate or Advanced International Certificate of Education may do so in the school districts along the Potomac.
That is not the case in Fayette County, or in much of the rest of the country. Like many American high school students eager to learn, Berthold has enrolled in AP American History but was told she can’t take AP English because there isn’t room for her.
The Post and its Web site, washingtonpost.com, last week published the 2013 version of my annual America’s Most Challenging High Schools list. In 1998, I started ranking schools based on AP, IB and AICE test participation in the Post and Newsweek. I wanted to encourage schools to drop the barriers to advanced learning, such as space limits and grade point requirements, that were frustrating motivated students like Berthold. Schools that said yes to any student who wanted to work hard in a college-level course would rank higher on my list and inspire other schools to do the same.
Few superintendents and school board members of the Washington area needed persuading. They were already opening AP, IB and AICE to all when I started the list. In 1998, Fairfax County not only removed its barriers but decided to require every student in an AP, IB or AICE course to take the final exam, with no cost to the student. They each get a taste of a three-hour college exam, something many had missed because they couldn’t afford it or failed to see its value. Maryland and D.C. also opened their AP and IB programs, letting them grow with demand, and found many more students were passing the tests than before.
Not so in Fayette County, where an A student like Berthold is barred from an AP class. Enrollment in college-level courses in that county depends on grades, teacher’s recommendations, writing samples and space.
Like many schools in affluent communities, Starr’s Mill does make my list of the nation’s most challenging campuses, but at the lower end. Only eight percent of its students are low income. Its ratio of AP tests to graduating seniors, the number on which I base my rankings, is 1.559. Oakton, a Fairfax County high school where 11 percent of students are low-income, has a ratio of 4.732. The difference in the academic cultures of the two schools is huge, in large part because the Washington area school lets students take all the AP courses they want.
Berthold’s mother, Sheri Polis, thinks the Fayette County school district wants to look better by limiting enrollment and having the highest AP scores.
“I’m so disappointed,” Berthold told me. “I wish I felt that my school truly wanted me to succeed and was willing to support me.”
College Board vice president for AP Trevor Packer, reacting to Berthold’s situation, says “enrollment in an Advanced Placement course can provide students with key benefits that should not be denied to motivated students who are willing to take on the challenge and who are backed by strong parental support.” College admissions officers, he notes, want applicants who have taken the most challenging courses available, “so when a student is willing, but is denied opportunity to enroll, an inaccurate message is sent.”
The Fayette County schools don’t seem to care. “All students wishing to take AP courses must meet the same criterion for entrance,” said spokeswoman Melinda Berry-Dreisbach. “Some students may not meet the criterion for every AP course they want to take.”
Washington-area residents should count themselves lucky that their districts are not so stuck in the past. Telling smart students they won’t be allowed to excel seems a dumb way to run a school system.