But three county school board members recently voiced concerns that with rising enrollment in AP courses, the quality of the courses might be going down — an assertion school system administrators strongly dispute.
The Challenge Index 2007, published May 21 by Newsweek, ranks 27,000 schools and publishes the top 5 percent by the percentage of AP, International Baccalaureate or Cambridge tests given to students. The number of tests administered in those courses is divided by the number of graduating seniors.
This year’s list, compiled from 2006 data, ranked Maurice J. McDonough 260th, La Plata 671st, Thomas Stone 851st and Westlake 922nd.
AP classes are the highest level courses offered in Charles County Public Schools, and give students the opportunity to test out of college courses before they graduate high school.
Superintendent James E. Richmond credits his staff’s encouragement for getting potential students in advanced classes.
‘‘We looked at the data and saw we needed to encourage more students to take more rigorous courses,” Richmond said during an awards ceremony May 23, noting that many potential AP students were not challenging themselves. ‘‘Just the exposure alone will prepare the students for their future.”
Charles County’s rankings are based solely on AP participation, since the county does not yet offer Cambridge or IB courses.
The school system has been successful in getting students enrolled in AP courses, with a 231 percent increase from the 2000-01 to 2005-06 school years.
After students complete an AP course, they are given the opportunity to take the College Board test — which more students have been doing over the past six years. During the 2005-06 school year, more than 87 percent of students in AP courses took the test, compared to 58 percent during the 2000-01 school year.
The Newsweek ranking does not take into account the number of students who get a passing score on the test, just participation on the test. If Charles were ranked by how many of its students received a passing score of three or higher, the county would be ranked much lower.
The grades for AP tests are on a scale of one to five, with five being the best. A score of three or better is considered a demonstration of college mastery.
Compared to other schools ranked by Newsweek for their participation in advanced tests, the highest-ranking Charles County school — La Plata — is in 938th place on a list of 1,258 when it comes to actually passing the tests.
As Charles County’s AP enrollment has risen, its performance on AP tests has declined. During the 2005-06 school year, 32.5 percent of Charles County students tested received a three or higher on the test, compared to 41 percent during the 2002-03 school year. The average score also dropped during this same time frame — from 2.4 during the 2002-03 school year to 2.1 in 2005-06.
However, the AP scores for Maryland students as a whole are continuing to rise. The College Board reported that Maryland had the largest performance gain on AP testing from 2000 to 2005. The percentage of Maryland students earning a score of three or higher increased 7.9 percentage points — from 14.1 percent to 22 percent.
Even with fewer Charles students gaining a three or higher on the AP test than in past years, the county is still beating the state’s percentages.
Is everybody readyfor AP?
Charles County school board member Pamela Pedersen said in a May 2 interview that she does not want students pushed into advanced courses if they are unwilling or not ready academically to do the work.
‘‘Some students might not be willing to go the distance and take the [College Board] test for college credit,” Pedersen said, asserting that the test should be an expectation of students. ‘‘When they take that step and bridge to those [AP] classes, they should be making the decision to put everything into those classes. ... They should be taking the class seriously enough to take the test.”
School board member Maura Cook shared the same concern with school officials during a Maryland Association of Boards of Education retreat in March.
‘‘I hear we are pushing students into AP courses that don’t belong there,” Cook said.
Board member Jennifer S. Abell said in a May 2 interview that she has received similar complaints over the years from both teachers and students about AP classes being watered-down to cater to students who don’t belong there.
And Pedersen said students taking courses in which they don’t belong might be holding back the other students. Some advanced students ‘‘are not reaching for the stars because [the class] is just too easy for them,” she said.
Pedersen said her eldest daughter shared concerns with her several times about the lack of rigor in high school AP courses and how certain students were holding back the class.
But Judy Estep, the county school system’s assistant superintendent of instruction, defended the AP courses.
‘‘They are rigorous, and I can say now with certainty they are aligned with other AP courses nationwide since we are getting good reviews from the College Board,” Estep said during a May 1 interview. The College Board administers the same test in the different AP subject areas for students across the nation, and in many cases students receive college credit for a good grade on these tests.
The College Board is currently conducting an audit on Charles County to determine the quality of the courses, and Estep said she has received positive feedback and results so far.
And Estep believes the results prove that ‘‘all of the students we have placed in AP courses belong there. I would have to know on what basis [the critics] are making the determination that a child doesn’t belong in there, and then we could deal with that.”
Student Andrew Van Woerkom, who has taken several AP courses at Westlake High School, said some classes do have the reputation of being easier than others.
‘‘Students can fly through some of these courses, or they can put it upon themselves to really learn the material,” said Van Woerkom, who was also the student representative to the county school board this school year. ‘‘One student, or a few, really can’t slow down a class that much. The teachers have been trained to handle those situations when certain students aren’t keeping up, and I believe they deal with it quite well.”
Bill Fisher, president of the Education Association of Charles County, a union representing about 1,700 teachers, said he has not heard any complaints from the AP teachers he represents of students getting pushed into an AP class who don’t belong there.
‘‘There are national standards that have to be met for these [AP] classes, so they can’t be reduced in any kind of way to make it easier,” Fisher said.
Fisher added he is proud that more students than ever enrolled in AP courses and has confidence that the classes are as demanding as ever.
E-mail Jacqueline Rabe at email@example.com.