Countywide enrollment in advanced academics courses has grown in the past three school years but dropped at all but six of Frederick County's public middle and high schools since 2012-2013, according to an analysis of school system data.
Catoctin, Linganore, Oakdale, Tuscarora, Urbana and Walkersville high schools grew their total enrollment in Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, community college, honors and other weighted courses that exceed a normal workload from about 20,300 students to nearly 23,000 since 2011-2012.
Advanced programs at the county's 18 other traditional middle and high schools grew slightly from 2011-2012 to 2012-2013, then dropped by more than 1,000 students to about 12,800 last school year.
School system officials said the changes are linked to lack of interest, some canceled classes and more students turning to dual enrollment or open campus programs for college credit.
More than 2,800 students took an AP class last school year, 225 fewer than in 2012-2013. It's the first time since at least 2010 that the program has not grown.
Larkin Hohnke, the school system's director of high schools, believes that drop was due to last year's brutal winter that caused numerous school day cancellations. Students felt underprepared and chose not to take AP exams in the spring, he said. That mindset may have lowered the incentive for students to enroll in AP classes at all this year.
Nearly half of all county public school students take at least one AP exam by graduation, according to school system data. Many students sit for more than one: Nearly 2,900 students took more than 5,200 tests last spring.
The smaller pool of test-takers also fared better than in the past. Nearly three-quarters of students scored a 3 or higher last spring, compared with less than 70 percent in 2011.
But colleges now tend not to award credit for AP courses unless students score the top grade of 5 on their subject's exam, Hohnke said, whereas a 3 or higher used to be accepted. Earning credit through dual enrollment or open campus programs at Frederick Community College is also becoming a more popular option, without the concern over passing one particular test.
About 340 students enrolled in open campus courses at FCC this fall, college spokesman Mike Pritchard said. Nearly 160 students are in dual enrollment classes with FCC at Oakdale and Tuscarora high schools this semester, some taking multiple courses.
Dual enrollment numbers have jumped from about 40 students in the 2012-2013 school year to 111 last year and 157 this fall, Pritchard said. About 330 students came to FCC for open campus classes in 2012-2013, dipping to nearly 290 last school year.
Beth Duffy, who oversees the programs, said last year's drop may be due to students seeking dual enrollment at their home high schools instead. Gov. Thomas Johnson, Walkersville and Catoctin high schools are joining the list of schools offering dual enrollment next semester, she added.
Marjorie Barnes, head of Urbana High's math department, said restructuring the sequence of math courses to introduce more difficult topics earlier to align with the Common Core state standards could lead to an even greater drop in enrollment in advanced academics.
Before Common Core-based changes, the most advanced students took Algebra 1 in seventh grade, geometry in eighth grade and Algebra 2 as freshmen. That left three years open for precalculus, AP calculus, or statistics and other higher-level courses.
Now, the most advanced students take Algebra 1 in eighth grade and geometry in ninth grade. Some students take both geometry and Algebra 2 as freshmen, math curriculum specialist Peter Cincotta said. He added that students have many options, and it is hard to say what is typical because of the two-semester block schedule in high schools.
Barnes sees many sophomores taking Algebra 2 and juniors in precalculus before moving to APs in their senior year. High schoolers can still reach the advanced courses if they double up and take an AP course in the same semester as a lower-level math class, she said.
Though math departments do expect to see fewer people in top-tier classes, that might not mean students are learning less.
Cincotta said in an email Friday that Algebra 1 is now a much more rigorous course than it was before the rollout of Common Core. Most of what was taught in Algebra 1 is now taught in regular eighth-grade math, he said.
"If the kids can critically think and approach problems in the same way," Barnes added, "it's not a bad thing."
Interest in AP has dropped, but demand for spots in the globally benchmarked International Baccalaureate program is at an all-time high.
Urbana is the county's only public high school to host IB and draws about half of its students from outside its district. Just over 100 students are enrolled this year, up from 90 in February, according to Principal Jay Berno.
Unlike AP courses, which students can pick from a list of about 30 offerings, IB is a comprehensive degree-seeking program where students must enroll in six or seven IB courses a semester. Those classes last one or two years compared with APs that last one or two semesters.
Ariana Sadoughi, an Urbana senior from New Market, joined IB as a freshman because it lends a more global perspective to education.
"We're doing the same program of studies that everyone all over the world is doing," she said. "I found that to be very interesting because I feel we get a very one-sided view of things."
Ariana and other students believe AP and IB classes should hold higher weights in grade calculations to reflect their more rigorous course load.
Unweighted classes give letter grades points on a scale from 0 to 4, then dividing by the number of credits a class is worth, to calculate grade point average. For example, earning a "B," or three points, in a one-credit class would lend 3.0 to an overall GPA.
Weighted courses — honors, advanced, AP and IB — assign higher values to each letter grade: an "A" is 5 points, "B" is 3.75, "C" is 2.5, "D" is 1.25 and “F” is zero points. That way, when points are divided by credits, students are given higher numbers for tackling harder content in the same amount of hours.
High school "merit" classes are supposed to be on grade level, Ariana said. Honors and advanced courses are set about one grade level higher. AP and IB are most difficult, thought of as equivalent to the same classes on a college campus.
The content of AP and IB can be fairly equal in difficulty, Ariana said, but "IB classes are much more of a commitment" because of their path to a special diploma.
"It can be kind of frustrating to see that someone who's taken only honors classes can end up with the same GPA as me or a higher rank or GPA," she said. "When (college admissions officers) are first looking at your profile, I don't think it's fair. ... The number doesn't seem to reflect the rigor."
Perhaps the school system should change AP and IB to a higher weight, Ariana said, or drop honors to a half-weight between merit classes and the college-level classes.
Some universities prefer giving credit for AP test scores, and others prefer IB equivalencies, she said. She's found that most award credit for the two-year IB classes but not those that last one year.
"It does kind of take away the allure of having such a high GPA," Ariana said. "I was first in unweighted GPA until I found out many of my classmates also have that same rank."
That realization doesn't feel great, she said, but she hopes colleges look past grades to the actual content of high school transcripts.
Most institutions of higher education have shifted to place value on rigor, variety and extracurriculars rather than numbers alone. Hood College's admissions website encourages students to pursue a strong college preparatory curriculum in high school.
"Applicants are admitted on the basis of academic achievements, personal qualities and accomplishments, but there are no set admission standards regarding grade point average and standardized test scores," the site says.
Mount St. Mary's University similarly judges students on strength of their high school curriculum and academic achievement, as well as test scores and leadership roles.
Hohnke said weighting different classes equally does not cheapen the experience of harder courses. And even if they did try to change course values, Hohnke doesn't know how that might work.
Students shouldn't fret, he said: Colleges do look at GPAs but tend to value it more if a student has taken AP classes or received an IB diploma.
"There is just a lot more credibility and predictability of student success based on the strength of the classes they take," Hohnke said.
Follow Rachel S. Karas on Twitter: @rachelkaras.
At a glance
Change in enrollment in high school weighted courses (Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, honors, etc.), 2011-2012 to 2013-2014 academic years
Brunswick: down 11.4 percent
Catoctin: up 6.3 percent
Frederick: down 5.5 percent
Gov. Thomas Johnson: up 3.6 percent
Linganore: up 10 percent
Middletown: up 0.1 percent
Oakdale: up 39.4 percent (school added upper two grades in August 2011 and 2012)
Tuscarora: up 12.4 percent
Urbana: up 7.7 percent
Walkersville: up 3.7 percent
Ballenger Creek: down 18.4 percent
Brunswick: down 28.6 percent
Crestwood: down 55.7 percent
Middletown: down 31.4 percent
Monocacy: down 48.2 percent
New Market: down 22.9 percent
Oakdale: down 42.2 percent
Urbana: down 26.2 percent
Walkersville: down 48.6 percent
West Frederick: down 37.2 percent
Thurmont: down 53.4 percent
Gov. Thomas Johnson: down 34.9 percent
Windsor Knolls: down 44 percent
Source: Frederick County Public Schools