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Tue Apr 21, 2015, 11:18 AM

Many U.S. schools still resist challenging all their students.

When my wife and I lived in Scarsdale, N.Y., in the 1990s, I was surprised that our son Peter had to take an entrance exam to get into the Advanced Placement U.S. History course at the local public high school. I remembered the five years I spent writing a book about an inner-city East Los Angeles school that had great success letting anyone who wanted to work hard have a chance at tackling AP.

I discovered that that California school was an exception to a national, unwritten rule restricting access to those courses. Most high schools did not go as far as Scarsdale in requiring entrance tests, but students usually could not get into college-level AP courses unless they had a strong grade point average, a good grade in the AP subject the year before or a teacher’s recommendation.

That seemed idiotic to me. Why would anyone stand in the way of motivated kids who would be better prepared for college if allowed to struggle in the most demanding courses available? When we moved back to the Washington area in 1997, I saw the beginnings of a change. The Fairfax County schools opened their AP and International Baccalaureate courses to all students. Not long after, nearly every district in the metropolitan area had done the same.

The Washington region has become a national model for challenging high school students. Many more students here have a chance to do AP, IB or the Cambridge University courses that can lead to the Advanced International Certificate of Education (AICE) diploma. Many more succeed in those courses than do in other parts of the country. According to the College Board, Maryland ranks first and Virginia third in the nation in the percentage of graduating seniors who have passed an AP exam.

Yet a survey I did as part of the latest Washington Post America’s Most Challenging High Schools list — the 2015 edition was released Sunday night — shows many schools still keep average students out of their best courses even though research shows they do better in college when given that opportunity.

Thirty-four percent of the 1,403 high schools that responded to the question said they had traditional rules barring enrollment in AP, IB or AICE if a student lacked the necessary GPA, teacher’s recommendation or good grade in a previous course. This suggests that many U.S. schools still have such rules, since I was surveying only the top 11 percent of schools as measured by participation in AP, IB and AICE.


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