The Best High Schools

Nick Freeman, an honor-roll student at Clayton A. Bouton High School in the hilly Albany suburb of Voorheesville, N.Y., had nearly a 90 average in social studies and English. Last spring a counselor urged him to sign up for Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. history because it would be wonderful preparation for college. He could indulge his love of political argument and writing. But school administrators said no. The AP course was only for A students. No B-plus wanna-bes, no matter how motivated, could get in.

At about the same time, 3,000 miles away in the worn linoleum halls of Inglewood High in South-Central Los Angeles, Rasheda Daniel was learning that despite her hard work in the very same AP history course, she would not be able to take the AP test necessary to earn college credit. It cost $50, even with the discount for low-income families. With her mother temporarily out of work, she did not have the money. Later Daniel learned that test-fee grants had been available, but no one in her school--as ignorant of the importance of academically challenging courses and tests as suburban Voorheesville--had told her.

For decades, American educators have been giving high-school students like Freeman and Daniel the message that they should not challenge themselves too much. The prevailing view is that average students in suburban schools, and even the best students in urban schools, risk failure, depression and tarnished transcripts if they try to get ahead of themselves and take college-level courses like AP or International Baccalaureate (IB). Students who defy such professional skepticism are often left to struggle on their own.

Now that attitude among educators is beginning to change, at least at the state and federal levels. In just the last year, new research and a series of legal and political developments have turned AP and IB courses, erstwhile academic boutiques for a thin upper slice of students, into instruments for social and educational change in the nation's 25,000 high schools. The doors to brain-expanding classes like calculus and European history are opening to students previously assigned to business math and sports literature, even though many teachers remain convinced that such challenges are too much of a strain for some.

Many Americans have never heard of AP or IB, the only two international high-school programs that consistently demand wide reading and rigorous thought. The list of high schools shown here ranks schools that try the hardest to involve students in these courses and tests, very different from the way schools are usually measured by test scores and college acceptances. AP and IB began with a very limited goal--to give prep-school students and diplomats' children more to do in their spare time than hang out at coffee bars or play golf. But in the last 25 years, these programs have evolved into proven devices for inspiring first-rate academic work by even disadvantaged teenagers. The AP and IB examinations are given in about 52 percent of American high schools each May. They take hours to complete and go against America's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" obsession with multiple-choice tests by using essays that must be graded by actual human beings.

Some teachers and parents complain that letting students like Freeman and Daniel take AP or IB courses will lower standards. Some A-plus students cringe at the questions B-average classmates ask AP teachers, as if not getting the lesson immediately were a social blunder akin to dirty hair or out-of-date sneakers. But the expansion of AP and IB is going ahead all the same. More than 1.1 million AP tests and 43,017 IB tests were given in 13,000 U.S. schools in 1999. Those numbers are expected to jump much higher this spring.

At the center of the change is a bespectacled education researcher named Clifford Adelman. Adelman works for the U.S. Education Department, where he is known for intense irritability at judgments and policies based on sloppy data. For the last several years, in both his cluttered office in southwestern Washington, D.C., and the second-floor study at his house in Kensington, Md., he has been chipping away at what he considers flawed assumptions about why minority students struggle in college.

His resulting study, "Answers in the Tool Box," examines the academic records of a large cohort of 13,000 students who were followed from the 10th grade in 1980 until they were about 30 in 1993. It shows that despite the emphasis college-admissions officers place on high-school grades and scores and class rank, those are not the strongest predictors of college completion. What matters instead is how rigorous and challenging students' high-school courses are, no matter what grades they receive. And the factor is particularly important in predicting the success of minority students. Courses like AP and IB, Adelman says, help develop what he calls "self-directed learning skills." When well taught, he says, such courses "put students in the position of setting up their own experiments, searching for their own specialized materials. You don't necessarily learn that in a regular high-school course."

Teachers and counselors often tell students to put off the most difficult subjects, like calculus, until college. Adelman's study suggests that is the wrong advice. Freeman's and Daniel's high schools, for instance, were essentially telling them this: we can't keep you from going to college, but we will deprive you of a learning experience that will help you succeed when you get there. An official at Freeman's school says AP enrollment was limited because the course, with its recommended small class size, was expensive to teach. Officials at Daniel's school district failed to respond to telephone calls and faxes seeking an explanation.

With minority preferences in university admissions abolished in California, Texas and Washington and retreating elsewhere, federal and state education officials have decided the best way to help disadvantaged students is to give them a shot at thought-provoking high-school courses. The Clinton administration spent $15 million last year on cutting AP and IB test fees, increasing training for teachers and making more courses available. The administration has asked Congress for $20 million this year, including money to put AP courses online.

States are promising more money for districts that want to expand their AP and IB offerings. Fairfax County in northern Virginia took the unusual step last year of spending $1.2 million to make sure it would have no Rasheda Daniels denied a chance to take an AP test. It paid everyone's $76 test fees and required that all AP students take the examinations. (This has long been the rule with IB.) Fairfax superintendent Daniel Domenech urged schools to let in any student who wanted the challenge.

This is not a popular approach among teachers. They say some students do not develop the intellectual capability to handle such courses until they are older. They complain of ambitious parents' pushing their children into courses in which they have no interest.

The solution, AP and IB advocates say, is not barring students from the courses but enriching the curriculum in lower grades to get them ready. The San Diego-based organization Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) identifies struggling middle-school students whose academic lives can be transformed with simple lessons in note-taking and time management. The Dallas-based O'Donnell Foundation, using an idea pioneered by University of Texas professor Uri Treisman, finances sessions in which high-school teachers show their middle-school counterparts what students need to get ready for AP. Fannie Mack, assistant principal at A. Philip Randolph High School in New York City, says she realized while creating an AP English class at that Harlem school that she first had to add muscle to the lower-level courses. "In the ninth grade," she says, "they were doing no more than writing autobiographies, reading Anne Frank and 'Raisin in the Sun' and calling it a day." She spread the word that a student who struggled in an AP course and failed the AP examination was still better off than before.

In Rasheda Daniel's case, the failure to find money for her AP test has sparked a significant legal test of the need for challenging courses. Invited to dinner at a Sizzler restaurant by American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California legal director Mark Rosenbaum and a team of law interns, Daniel and another Inglewood student described indifferent teaching, missing textbooks and limited course offerings. A year later the ACLU has filed a civil-rights class-action suit against the state of California for inadequate access to AP courses and tests in hundreds of schools. Daniel, one of the leading plaintiffs, is determined this spring to take the history test she missed.

Freeman and his parents, Lucille and John Allegretti-Freeman, got school-board support to open a second AP class. Nick is now soaring through World War I and loving every minute of it. He had a 91 in AP history his last marking period, and seems certain to get a top score on the AP test. "I was upset when they tried to keep me out of the course," Freeman says, but that made him appreciate the experience all the more. AP history teacher Mark Diefendorf "is my favorite teacher," he says. "We have mock trials on issues like the truth about Columbus, or the big-business leaders of the 19th century. It's like college. He doesn't spoon-feed us." That's the kind of education all students deserve.

Public schools are ranked according to a ratio devised by Jay Mathews: the number of Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate tests taken by all students at a school in 1999 divided by the number of graduating seniors.

*International Baccalaureate School


1 Stanton College Prep,* Jacksonville, Fla.

This magnet school inspires kids to excel


49. Chagrin Falls, Ohio

Teacher Wade Tolleson (center) demystifies calculus


95. Foshay Learning Center, Los Angeles

Principal Howard Lappin pushes AP in the inner city