Why AP MATTERS · By Jay Mathews / Newsweek

Only 30 percent of high-school students take any Advanced Placement courses at all; by the time Frausto graduates later this month, she will have taken 16 of them -- in many cases earning the highest grade, a 5, on the three-hour final exam.

That is because Frausto's school, the Talented and Gifted Magnet School near downtown Dallas, is one of a growing number of high schools trying to make AP as much a part of students' lives as french fries and iPods. Located in a run-down neighborhood not usually associated with high-level learning, Talented and Gifted -- "TAG" to its students -- tops NEWSWEEK's list of America's Best High Schools. Members of its racially mixed student body say they feel united by the challenge. "What I really love about TAG is the atmosphere," said Frausto, who will be attending MIT on a scholarship in the fall. "There is so much closeness."

Large studies in Texas and California done over the past two years indicate that good grades on AP tests significantly increase chances of earning college degrees. That has led many public schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods to look for ways to get their students into AP and a similar but smaller college-level course program called International Baccalaureate (IB), in hopes that their students will have the same college-graduation rates enjoyed by AP and IB students from the country's wealthiest private schools and most selective public schools.

It is a radical change, and many teachers say it makes as much sense as recruiting the chess club to play football. In a March posting on an education blog, veteran AP American-history teacher Kathleen Donnison said she thought NEWSWEEK was doing education a disservice by recognizing schools that were working to coax B and C students into AP and IB. "It is one thing for a bright student to be absorbed for hours working on a favorite subject. It is quite another story when an 'average' student struggles until two o'clock in the morning to master the massive amount of material of a course in which he has little interest," wrote Donnison, who teaches at Mamaroneck High School in Westchester County, N.Y. "How much of a favor are we doing these youngsters?"