The 100 Best High Schools in America: The Surge in the Number of Students Taking AP Tests Is Changing Life Inside America's Classrooms-And Altering the Rules of the College-Admissions Game. A Look at a New Set of Winners for 2003

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Byline: Jay Mathews

In the 1970s, Mike Riley was a young Chicago teacher trying to save failing inner-city students. He found they blossomed if he simply sat them down each day after class and made sure they did their homework. "They went from F's to honor roll, and I realized that... they weren't dumb kids, just kids we hadn't connected to," he says. Riley learned that even the most apathetic students responded to a challenge--as long as they had the right support.

Today he is the superintendent of schools in Bellevue, Wash., a hilly and ethnically diverse Seattle suburb on the leading edge of a movement to take this lesson to the next level. Riley wants to make the hardest classes in U.S. high schools today--the college-level Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) courses--mandatory for nearly all graduates. If he succeeds, he will help accelerate a transformation of American secondary education that has sparked intense debate among educators.

This month more than a million students in 14,000 high schools took 1,750,000 AP exams, a 10 percent increase over last year and twice the number of these college-level tests taken in 1996. That means that 245 more schools are eligible for the 2003 Challenge Index, which ranks 739 public schools according to the ratio of AP or IB tests taken by all students divided by the number of graduating seniors. Schools that select more than half their students by exams or other academic criteria are not eligible, because they have few, if any, of the average students who need a boost from AP or IB. Some of these magnet schools achieve extraordinary results, partly because they get the best students. In the last index, in 2000, only 494 schools were included. (AP's younger, European-based counterpart, IB, is also on the rise, with 77,285 tests given in American schools this month.) The index uses AP and IB as a measure because schools that push these tests are most likely to stretch young minds--which should be the fundamental purpose of education.

Some experts think AP is growing so fast and spreading so far it could eventually supplant the SAT and the ACT as America's most influential test. At Harvard--the dream school for many high-performing seniors--the dean of admissions says AP is already a better predictor of college grades than the SAT. One reason could be that students get only one shot at the AP, unlike the SATs, which many retake several times in order to boost their scores. More important, AP tests a whole year of learning, while the SAT assesses a specific set of skills that many educators think have little relation to academic potential in college. College-admissions officers at many schools say that AP and IB have acquired the status of backstage passes at a rock concert. Selective universities begin to ask questions if they see that applicants have not taken the tests available at their high schools. Even freshmen and sophomores are crowding into AP courses once open only to juniors and seniors. At Miller Place High School on New York's Long Island, guidance director Joseph W. Connolly says 40 percent of this year's 10th graders took AP European history--an unheard-of proportion a decade ago.

Both AP and IB students answer lengthy free-response questions that are graded by actual human beings (AP also has multiple-choice questions). If their scores are high enough, students can earn college credit. They also get a taste of the higher-level exams they'll face on campus. Jordan Wish, a senior at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Md., took two AP and four IB tests this month--25 hours of tests with not much time for sleep each night. "Right now I am not feeling so good," Wish said as he crammed in some last-minute studying for the difficult AP physics test. But he thinks the extra effort will be good preparation for Princeton, where he'll be a freshman this fall.

Proponents say AP and IB have exposed many average suburban teenagers to a level of instruction once reserved only for honor students and, even more significantly, have energized inner-city schools. …