Montgomery County public school students took a record-setting number of Advanced Placement exams in 2010—29,854 to be exact, up from 2009’s all-time high of 28,575. Nearly 72 percent of tests received a college-ready score of 3 or above.

And this is good news?

The Board of Education would have us think so. “Once again, our students have demonstrated that they want to take challenging courses and are prepared to succeed in doing college-level work,” board President Christopher S. Barclay said in a release posted on the MCPS website. “These outstanding results on the 2010 Advanced Placement exams also provide one more piece of solid evidence that the emphasis on rigorous course taking in MCPS is the right thing for students.”

Is it?

Maybe we should ask the families featured in the new documentary, Race to Nowhere. The movie is creating a grassroots buzz over its message about high-stress competiveness in public and private high schools. Bethesda-area parents and students have been flocking to local showings, including those at Bethesda-Chevy Chase and Walt Whitman high schools.

In the movie, which will be shown at Walter Johnson High School on March 3, students just like ours are so overwhelmed from trying to achieve the perfect college resume and making sure they pass advanced tests that they aren’t actually learning much. Some resort to cheating; some are getting sick and some are turning to drugs to handle the stress.

The message is clear: We parents have created this pressure. After all, aren’t we the ones who succumb to the phone call from the principal wondering why our child isn’t taking more AP classes? Aren’t we the ones who shuttle kids from afterschool drama club to evening soccer practice and then wonder why they’re awake at midnight doing homework?

After watching Race to Nowhere recently, I had a moment of clarity. Last fall, I sat through information nights for the county’s public high school magnet programs, including one at Rockville’s Richard Montgomery High School. Getting into the school’s well-regarded International Baccalaureate Magnet Program isn’t easy: 900 students vied for just over 100 spots last year.

But if your child does get in, life is golden, according to several parents who spoke about their children’s experiences in the rigorous program. If your child is accepted, “you have hit the jackpot,” one dad stated. Minutes later, another parent repeated the phrase.

The words struck me at the time, but didn’t hit home until after I saw the movie. I have hit the jackpot? What about my daughter, who’d actually go to the school? Is this really all about us parents?

Of course, there are students who thrive under such academic pressure and I’m not suggesting that we hold them back from achieving all they can. But what is the true percentage of kids who are able to handle advanced work and yet keep up with all the other activities that fill their lives?

After listening to all the superlative advanced offerings at another high school information night last fall, one parent had a simple question: What about an average kid? What should she do?


Julie Rasicot

Julie Rasicot can be reached at