Reed High School teacher Ann Rischel is constantly studying to keep her class material relevant and rigorous. She's taken three summer seminars and spends time in one-day sessions every other year with other teachers to keep herself abreast of the concepts her students must learn to be successful.
"I think they're better trained to go into college or university in general," Rischel said. "It forces them into a higher level of thinking and develops close reading and writing skills."
Rischel, who teaches AP Literature and Composition, has been involved in the program for five years. She said she pushes her students as if they were in a college freshman composition class.
"If (the students) have done language and composition, they should know the basics of good argumentative writing, of research and how to look at a piece of text, analyze the text to support their ideas, know how to use outside sources and, theoretically, know what a thesis statement is," Rischel said.
AP teachers like Rischel have pushed more Reed students to take part in the advanced classes, earning Reed a spot among the Washoe County School District's 11 high schools to make Newsweek magazine's annual "Challenge Index."
Eleven out of 13 county high schools ranked among 1,358 schools in the nation that encourage students to take AP and IB tests. Only Gerlach High and Truckee Meadows Community College High didn’t make the list from Washoe County: Gerlach needed only one more student to take an exam to be counted while at Truckee Meadows students already are enrolled in college-level courses.
The Challenge Index’s school rankings are determined by a formula created by Jay Mathews, an education writer for the Washington Post. Mathews devised the ratio by taking the number of AP and IB tests taken by all students at a school during a given year — 2007 in this case — and dividing it by the number of graduating seniors.
Wooster High School in Reno was the highest ranking Washoe County school at 371, Spanish Springs came in at 1,341 on the list and Reed ranked at 1,142.
The Advanced Placement preparatory curriculum allows students to take college level courses as a high school junior or senior, culminating in an exam at the end of the school year. Depending on a student’s score on the exam and a college’s requirements, the student may get college credit for passing the exam.
International Baccalaureate participants study similar subjects to AP but more in-depth and sometimes in a language other than English, and IB students must complete a 4,000-word extended essay and a community project and take a Theory of Knowledge course.
Students at Reed can choose from 12 AP subjects, including U.S. government, French, Spanish, statistics, calculus, English literature, U.S. history, biology, physics, chemistry and environmental science. Principal Mary Vesco said the number indicates the students' commitment to their academics in a more challenging setting.
"In my graduation speech, I'll be thanking all the kids for taking these AP courses," Vesco said. "These are kids who are willing to take the risk to take college courses, to do well on them and get ahead in college. I think it reflects wonderfully on the school."
Sparks High School ranked 725 on the Challenge Index. Pat Flynn, curriculum assistant principal, said it proves the school's commitment to providing quality, challenging education for students.
"What it means is we are providing a rigorous curriculum for a large number of students," Flynn said. "The intention of the Mathews Index is to measure the rigor of the curriculum that is applied schoolwide and it reinforces for us that we are doing a pretty good job for (the students) and preparing them well."
This year, Sparks High offered nine AP courses, including English literature, biology, U.S. history, Spanish and studio art, the last of which is not found at many schools. Students in AP studio art must submit a portfolio of work for their exam.
Not all high schools require students who take an AP course to take the exam, but Washoe County mandates it. Many students, however, take the classes just to challenge themselves and the college credit is merely a bonus if they pass the test at the end.
Cathy Young, the AP U.S. History teacher at Reed, has taught at the school for 21 years. She said her greatest joy is seeing the students desire to excel.
"The challenge is the workload because it's pretty constant. They even have to do work over the summer before getting in the class," Young said. "It's a pretty big leap from their sophomore to junior year; that's really their biggest challenge."
Some teachers say the advanced exams are not an accurate barometer of the school's success in attracting students to these more challenging classes.
"It gives good (public relations)," said Reed vice principal and former AP statistics teacher Dave Sayer, who now oversees Reed's AP program. "There's an influx of students taking strenuous courses. We do the honors program and several college courses that don't use AP exams. There's so much more to the school."
Sayer said the school offers other opportunities that engage students and prepare them for college as well.
"Reed High's musical program is the best in the country, but it's not measured academically," Sayer said.
But Sayer doesn't discount the AP program or the Challenge Index results.
"Anything like this speaks well of the school," he said. "We offer diverse choices kids can do while they're here."
He recalled one student who benefited from the AP exam long after she graduated from Reed.
"One young lady took AP statistics years back and she hated the class all the way through," Sayer said. "I didn't want to her out of it and she suffered through it and got a 1 (on a scale of 1 to 5, with 3 being the minimal passing score) on the exam. She went on to college and one year she came back and said, 'I got a 98 percent on my statistics final,' and the reason is it clicked was she remembered everything I said. When a student achieves in a subject they're not comfortable with, that can do nothing but make them more comfortable in their studies."
Steve Mulvenon, communication director for the school district, said the experience of handling college-level courses alone makes it worthwhile for students to take such classes.
"There's a good body of research that shows students who participate in one or more AP or IB classes are much more likely to succeed in college," Mulvenon said. "They've got a taste of what college work is like and it increases the chance of their success."