The AP and IB Arms Race

Sometimes more challenging coursework is a good thing for students. And sometimes more is too much.

Some academic observers (including Washington Post columnist Mathews) have called Robertson’s 100-percent mandate “daring,” but the principal also has his critics. A few have questioned whether such practices constitute a watered-down or spoon-fed version of AP, given the accommodations that are needed to help certain students succeed (an approach some educators refer to as “scaffolding”). The very fact that such modifications are necessary, some would argue, is evidence that certain kids aren’t truly ready for AP classes. Others question whether the small classes and co-teachers needed to achieve 100 percent participation are economically feasible.

Still, Robertson sees the experiment as a success. “I don’t view it as an extra cost,” he says. “I just want to make sure kids have an opportunity to take an advanced course and see that with the right kinds of support, all things are possible.” He plans to offer the same AP Government course to a similar group in the Class of 2015.

When it comes to healthy versus unhealthy academic stress, counselors, teachers and administrators at area high schools realize they are walking a fine line. Most schools make a point of keeping an eye on students with heavy AP or IB loads, and some require students to seek permission before enrolling in three or more advanced classes.

“In high-achieving communities there’s a big concern that teenagers have a hard time setting boundaries for themselves and saying no,” says Asheesh Misra, the former IB Director at George Mason High School in Falls Church City. (He now manages “Bridging the Equity Gap,” a program of the International Baccalaureate organization.)

At Yorktown, students in the York-town Scholars program—a track for which students must take six AP classes over three years, maintain a B average and participate in enrichment activities—are assigned mentors and receive additional support from a gifted-resources teacher. “We don’t allow mandatory schoolwork over any of the breaks or summer,” says Assistant Principal Meghan Henning, who heads up the program. “We really try to strike a healthy balance.”

Schools use the term “balance” a lot, but many students and parents still struggle to find it. Nearly 1 in 3 high school sophomores and seniors surveyed in the 2010 Community Report Card of the Arlington Partnership for Children, Youth & Families reported “depressive symptoms.” (Though the survey did not identify potential causes, one might assume that academics are a factor.) Similarly, more than a third of 12th-graders who participated in the 2012 Fairfax Youth Survey—a collaborative study conducted by Fairfax County Public Schools and the county Department of Neighborhood and Community Services—reported “feeling so sad or hopeless for two weeks in a row in the past year that [they] stopped doing some usual activities.”

“It’s no good if they burn out,” says Dawn Allison, a college and career counselor at McLean High School, who, with her colleagues, has worked with PTSA President Bowers to construct a spreadsheet that helps students see how their commitments—including sleep—add up to 24 hours or occasionally more. (Arlington Public Schools similarly publishes a number of “companion documents” to help parents and students map out academic plans with realistic goals.)

Such tools are designed to give students and parents a much-needed reality check. “Are you willing to sacrifice your child’s health for the potential that they may or may not get into a selective school?” Bowers asks. “We’re trying to get parents to realize this, because they’re the ones who coach the kids. You can’t complain that your child is sleeping four or five hours a night and [simultaneously] allow them to take four or five AP [classes].”

Still, there are those competitive students and their competitive parents who can’t help wondering whether that one extra AP class—and the sacrifice that comes with it—could mean the difference between acceptance to a first-choice school versus the consolation prize of a back-up “safety” school.

“There are some kids who can handle [the demands of a full AP load] and those are the kids these high-ranking schools are looking for,” says Pope. “Everyone’s trying to prove that they are that kid [even though] percentage-wise, that doesn’t work out.”

The competition is indisputably real. In 2014, the acceptance rates at most Ivy League schools hovered around 10 percent. At Stanford, the acceptance rate was 5 percent.

Arlington Public Schools Superintendent Patrick Murphy acknowledges the stress this places on students, but believes that the benefits of advanced academics continue to outweigh the negatives.

“Historically, the schools division [APS] has demonstrated great success with more rigorous classes,” says Murphy, who in May was named “Superintendent of the Year” for the state of Virginia. He cites increased participation among minority students as a particularly significant success story in Arlington.

In February, Murphy issued a letter to families of APS high school students, encouraging students “to consider enrolling in at least one” AP, IB or dual-enrollment course.

Murphy denies that the APS push to get more kids to enroll in AP and IB classes has anything to do with The Washington Post’s Challenge Index.

And while he acknowledges the tales of kids who overcommit and run themselves ragged, he deflects the notion that high schools are to blame for this high-stakes phenomenon. “This is a balancing point of what’s right for your child, what’s right for your family, and those decisions are really family decisions at the end of the day.

“One of the things I hear is ‘Oh, you want kids to take four or five AP classes.’ That’s not at all what I’m saying,” he clarifies. “I’m saying have a balance, but in some area stretch yourself. Play to your strengths.”

Still, some say it’s hard not to interpret the annual letter that APS mails to fifth-grade parents as a dire warning: “Decisions you make now may cast the die for your child’s future well beyond middle school.”

The letter then encourages students to start earning high school credits while they are still in middle school.

Amy Brecount White, a former AP English Literature teacher, is now a freelance writer, novelist and college essay coach. Find her at

A Controversial Index

How does the Challenge Index arrive at its rankings? Columnist Jay Mathews divides the number of AP, IB and Cambridge tests taken by the total number of graduating seniors at each school. (Cambridge is an advanced academic program not widely used in Virginia schools, though there are a few that use it.) For the most part, public schools that achieve a ratio of at least 1.00 (meaning they had as many tests as they had graduates) make the national list. In 1998, 243 schools nationwide qualified for the first Challenge Index listing. By 2014, that number had risen to more than 2,100. How well a student actually scores on the exams is immaterial to the index.

The index has become a powerful force in the competitive academic landscape. Consider its effect on Arlington’s H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program, which in 1998 was ranked eighth in the nation by the Challenge Index. The school subsequently found itself overrun with new applicants for its lottery system. “The index made more tension around the lottery and was also increasing the sense that everybody has to be taking all these AP classes and put a lot of emotional pressure on kids,” says Randy McKnight, who chaired the H-B English department for 25 years until his retirement in 2009. He is now a counselor with AGM-College Advisors in Arlington.

McKnight laments that the recent emphasis on AP classes at H-B—which is known for its experimental, student-driven culture—has made the school “less educationally alternative” and less able to offer independent studies.

In 2011, a motion to request that H-B be removed from the Challenge Index nearly passed at a “town meeting” (H-B’s term for a weekly gathering during which students and faculty members play equal roles in making decisions that affect the school environment). “We discussed the concern that being at the top of the Challenge Index was reductionistic,” says H-B Principal Frank Haltiwanger. “Some felt like people were applying for the wrong reasons.”

In 1998, H-B’s Challenge Index score was 2.2342, earning it a national ranking of 8. In 2014, its score was 6.590, giving it a national ranking of 58. Interpreters say this decline in rankings isn’t an indication of faltering academics at H-B, but rather of the widespread expansion of AP and IB curricula across the country.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the Challenge Index has influenced high schools around the country,” says Denise Pope, a Stanford University lecturer and co-founder of Challenge Success, a nonprofit educational advocacy group. “Anytime you have a ranking like that you’re creating a competition that people want to win.”

Mathews, who in 1988 wrote a book about Jaime Escalante, the inner-city Los Angeles AP Calculus teacher who inspired the movie Stand and Deliver, feels the nationwide expansion of AP curricula is a positive. It means that more students—including those on the losing side of the achievement gap—have the opportunity to take more-challenging classes, he contends.

But Mathews has his critics, including fellow Washington Post education reporter Valerie Strauss.

“What happened in [the D.C.] area over the years…is that [schools] wanted to be higher on the list, so they kept pushing more and more kids to be in AP, even kids who probably shouldn’t have been, and tried to get them to take the test,” Strauss says.

The result, she says, is a widening disconnect between AP coursework and actual college performance. “At the same time that we’ve had this enormous growth in AP, we still have college professors saying that kids aren’t prepared. So shouldn’t there have been some movement on that score? Exactly what the AP courses are accomplishing, I’m not really sure, in terms of preparing kids for the rigors of college.”

AP vs. IB

Advanced Placement (AP) courses are offered in 37 subjects. In order to claim the AP moniker, a high school must submit its course syllabus, teaching materials and other data for approval by the College Board, the same nonprofit that designs and administers the SAT test. Some courses, such as English Literature, are skills-based and allow teacher flexibility, while others, such as science and history courses, have come under fire for requiring too much memorization. (The College Board has been known to redesign courses if the public outcry is loud enough.)

Public and private schools in Arlington, Falls Church and McLean currently offer up to 25 AP course options. Most schools offer a weighted grade point average bonus to AP students, although students are required to take the AP final exam to get that bonus. (For example, an A in a regular class earns 4.0 points, while an A in an AP class earns 5.0 points.)

Many schools nationwide do not offer AP classes until junior year; however, most schools in the greater D.C. area offer them to sophomores. In Arlington, Wakefield and Washington-Liberty allow freshmen to take AP classes. Bishop O’Connell offers students a foundational college prep class their freshman year and one AP class—Modern European History—their sophomore year, with a few exceptions.

As an alternative to AP, some schools also offer International Baccalaureate (IB) curricula. Washington-Lee in Arlington and George Mason in Falls Church City both offer IB, which many praise for its academic depth and emphasis on writing.

Which option is better? It depends on who you ask.

Katie Remedios, an Arlington mother of four, had kids in both programs. She says her two sons thrived in the AP programs at Wakefield, while her two daughters both earned full IB diplomas at W-L. “AP prepares you for the workload of college and to listen to more-intense subject matter. AP teaches you to spit out a lot of facts, and they’re giving you a lot of information,” Remedios says. “IB teaches you critical thinking.” She cautions, however, that IB isn’t for every student, because it is very reading- and writing-intensive.

Some kids feel more comfortable in an AP class that has clearly defined parameters and expectations. “If you learn better in a lecture-and-drill setting, then AP is for you,” says Abby*, a 2013 W-L grad, who took both IB and AP classes. “IB is all about application and analysis and writing.” She ultimately decided not to do full IB, because the requirements—which include 150 hours of a creative activity, community service and a 4,000-word extended essay—felt too demanding.

Madison*, who graduated from W-L in June with a full IB diploma, has mixed feelings about the experience. She says she now feels very prepared for college, but was surprised by how time-consuming the program’s other requirements proved to be. For example, the deadline for the extended essay fell on Jan. 15, which meant that she was writing her IB essay while also completing college applications.

Jeff Williams, who graduated from George Mason in 2008 with a full IB diploma, feels in retrospect that the load was too heavy. “I got a very good foundation for college, but we all felt incredibly overworked in our last two years [at Mason],” says Williams, who went to UVA and is now in grad school at the University of Wisconsin. “It was pressure from our parents and ourselves, because we wanted to get into the best schools. I would snap at people a lot.”

Nevertheless, Mason and W-L are both quick to claim success when it comes to their IB programs. At W-L, 74 percent of IB test takers in 2013 scored a 4 or above (with 7 being the highest possible score). At Mason, the number was 86 percent.

Categories: Parents & Kids