Most suburban school systems in Maryland expanded their college-level test participation last year, according to The Washington Post’s annual Challenge Index ratings.

Carroll County was the only Maryland locality on the list that did not set its best-ever score on the Challenge Index in 2010.

Prince George’s County scored a rating of 1.193, one of the highest in the country. But its high participation rate was accompanied by low average passing rates on the Advanced Placement tests. That was the result of a policy pioneered by several Prince George’s schools, along with some in the District, Texas, Florida, California and Indiana, to require most students to take Advanced Placement courses and tests.

Educators at these schools have concluded that although few of their students are likely to achieve passing scores on the three-hour college-level AP exams, many would benefit from tasks that acquaint them with college standards, even if they do not score high enough to earn college credit. Once students are involved in AP, those educators say, teachers can help them catch up to the AP standard through improved instruction and more challenging programs in lower grades.

Three Prince George’s high schools — Crossland, Surrattsville and Friendly — had participation rates on AP tests high enough to qualify for The Post’s main national list. But they were placed instead on the Catching Up list because few of their AP tests had passing marks. The passing rates were 3 percent at Crossland and Surrattsville and 5 percent at Friendly.

Other Prince George’s schools did better. The county’s highest AP passing rate, 62 percent, was at Eleanor Roosevelt, which selectively admits some of its students. Second was Bowie High with a passing rate of 43 percent. Third was Northwestern High, 37 percent. Overall Prince George’s had an average passing rate on AP and International Baccalaureate tests of 26 percent.

Among Washington area school systems, those in suburban Maryland had three of the top 10 rankings in the Challenge Index: Montgomery County was in fourth place; Anne Arundel County in seventh; and Calvert County in ninth. On a ranked list of schools in the area, Montgomery had five of the top 10 places: Bethesda-Chevy Chase was second; Richard Montgomery third; Poolesville fourth; Walter Johnson ninth; and Churchill 10th.

The District

In recent years, D.C. public charter schools had higher college-level test participation rates than regular schools, ranking higher on the Challenge Index. But the new list shows charter schools have fallen behind the school system.

A major reason: Friendship Collegiate Academy, the highest-ranking D.C. charter school on the index, had a large drop in AP testing. It gave 287 AP tests in 2010, down from 532 in 2009. Its index score declined to 1.970 from 2.661.

Arsallah Shairzay, who runs the AP program at Friendship, said the school gave many more tests from 2007 to 2009 because it had extra money for AP from a grant. The number has since dropped, he said, but “we just administered about 300 AP exams this month, which is a more sustainable number; and still it is an increase of nearly 300 percent compared to the 99 AP exams that we had in 2006.”

In 2010, D.C. charters had an average index score of 1.742, while regular schools scored 1.499. This year, the charters dropped to 1.437 and regular schools rose to 1.511. The top non-charter on the list was the School Without Walls, a selective enrollment school with an index score of 4.458, 11th in the Washington area and 97th on the national list.

Many D.C. schools, both regular and charter, give significant numbers of AP tests but have low passing rates. AP teachers at those schools say the college-level courses and tests, written and graded by outside experts, set a high standard for their students. It is better, they say, for the students to struggle and fail to p ass AP exams than to take easier courses that do not develop the academic skills they need in college.

Two regular D.C. schools — Columbia Heights and McKinley Tech — and three charters — Hyde, IDEA and Hospitality — had participation rates high enough to make the national Challenge Index list but passing rates too low to qualify. They are ranked on the separate national Catching Up list. Columbia Heights leads that list with an index score of 4.781 but a passing rate of 7 percent.

Columbia Heights requires all students to take AP English Literature and AP English Language, even though most come from families where English is not the first language. School leaders say the policy is raising achievement and they do not plan to change it.


Northern Virginia school systems continued to lead the metropolitan area in pushing students to take college-level tests, according to the latest Challenge Index rankings. The top three systems on the index were the city of Falls Church, Arlington County and Loudoun County, in that order.

Fairfax County ranked fifth, the city of Winchester sixth, Prince William County eighth and Rappahannock County 10th.

Falls Church, with an index score of 4.882, had the advantage of having just one high school, George Mason, that has been a national leader in the IB program for several years. That high school ranked fifth in the Washington area and 70th nationally, based on the ratio of IB or AP tests to the number of graduating seniors.

Arlington had three schools among the local list’s top 10. H-B Woodlawn, an alternative school that admits applicants by random lottery, was first in the region and 46th in the nation with a rating of 5.795. Washington-Lee was sixth in the region, Yorktown eighth.

The Washington area has the highest concentration of college-level test-taking in the country. It was not surprising that almost every local school district achieved an average index rating over 1.000, a standard most schools nationwide do not meet.

Two Northern Virginia districts, however, were last and next-to-last on the ranked list of districts. Fredericksburg had a rating of 0.883, an improvement over 2009. The city of Manassas, in last place, produced its lowest rating since 2001. The city school system has stopped paying AP test fees for students because of budget difficulties. Most Northern Virginia districts pay all AP and IB fees. When some attempted to make students pay this year, state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) said they could not because it violated the constitutional principle of a free education.

Manassas schools spokeswoman Almeta Radford said charging for the tests might explain why the system’s rating on The Post’s list has dropped from its high of 1.326 in 2008 to 0.587 this year.

“Our feeling is that, while a total of 132 students did take tests,” Radford said, “at $87 per test, it’s quite possible that families chose to only do one or two, due to the economy or other factors.”

by Jay Mathews