Back in the early ‘80s, only one Advanced Placement course was offered at my high school and only one class of about 20 kids took it.

Those of us who passed the AP exam in May were thrilled to get the college credit and to know we had one college course under our belts before we even stepped onto campus.

Today’s high school students, especially in Montgomery County Public High Schools, can take multiple AP courses and often do, earning many college credits.

The availability of AP courses and how many a student should take is always a hot topic in the highly competitive environment of MCPS high schools. This year, the courses have generated interest on a number of fronts.

The school system recently touted the fact that five county public high schools placed among the top 102 in The Washington Post’s 2012 High School Challenge. In fact, all MCPS high schools appear in the rankings this year.

Schools were scored by the number of college-level tests—that includes AP, International Baccalaureate and Advanced International Certificate of Education— given in 2011 divided by the number of graduates that year.

Results of the challenge, devised by Post education columnist Jay Mathews, are always hotly anticipated, but also draw criticism because they don’t take into account how well students do on the exams.  

Mathews explains that he doesn’t take scores into account because he’s found that high school can keep those rates “articificially high by allowing only top students to take the courses.” Also, other schools might just encourage top students in the courses to take the exams, he said.  

The Challenge Index came into play in April when a veteran Richard Montgomery High School teacher complained that that the combining of two advanced courses had resulted in some students studying U.S. history in the same class as Advanced Placement students.

In a public letter, social studies teacher Brian Donlon said that the high school was awarding credit to students “for classes being Advanced Placement when these classes in no way meet the AP criteria as set by the College Board.” He further claimed “this deceptive practice will most likely result in the school improving its score on the Washington Post/Newsweek annual Challenge Index.”

School officials said an error in class registration had caused the problem with the AP class and the Middle Years Programme class on U.S. history. They found that the best solution was putting students into one class that would also prepare them for the AP U.S. history exam, according to an online Gazette story.

AP also generated discussion in the high school press. In early May, Montgomery Blair High School student journalist Mimi Verdonk took issue with what she termed the “madness” created by students trying to garner as much college credit as possible by taking AP exams—even though they haven’t taken the courses.

Students who “self-study” for the exams are ultimately cheating themselves, argued the sports editor in a recent edition of Blair’s Silver Chips Online.

“Not taking a class means a student misses out on the classroom feel, the direction of the teacher and the learning experience. The open discussion and exchange of ideas that are created in a class filled with other students are completely remiss,” she wrote.

Verdonk also noted that students have figured out that they can avoid final exams in high school courses by signing up for AP classes—which is a clever way to end the school year as soon as possible.

“No matter the score on the AP, which isn’t received by students until the third week in July, students who choose to take the AP for their class are given automatic exemption from finals,” she wrote. “Students are willing to shell out nearly $100 to pay for what could potentially be the difference between passing or failing, if a student runs the risk of failing a final exam.”

In another interesting note, writers Julia Fine and Elise Girard of TattlerExtra, the online edition of the Bethesda-Chase High School newspaper, surveyed a few AP teachers on how they handle the malaise that settles in after students takes their AP exams in May—but still must attend class until school ends in June. The teachers mostly said they try to come up with projects that are student-centered to keep kids interested.

My favorite comment? AP chemistry teacher Nurgul Balimtas said that her students would do an environmental project, have fun and “will sleep in the classroom and eat breakfast.”

Who wouldn’t want to go to class for that?

Julie Rasicot

Julie Rasicot can be reached at julie.rasicot@bethesdamagazine.com