High School Challenge 2011

May 20, 2011

Have questions or comments about The High School Challenge? The Post's Jay Mathews, who has ranked Washington-area public high schools using the Challenge Index since 1998, will be online to discuss them at 1 p.m. ET. The Index -- which was expanded to high schools across the United States this year, is a measure of how effectively a school prepares its students for college.

Ready to start

Why not develop indices that focus on prepration for other work tracks? College isn't everything, and an index that focuses only preparation for college does the nation a disservice.

We have had a lot of recent research on your good question, and the results suggest this: If a student wants to get a good job or a slot in a good training program right out of high school, she needs the same kind of preparaion in high school that she would need to be ready for college: She needs to have developd good time management habits, a working knowledge of math through at least algebra II, skill at writing in a clear and persuasive way, good reading comprehension, ability to make presentations and good people skills. Since the needs are the same for both college goers and non college goers, the smart programs attempt to keep standards high for all, while offering vocationally related courses to kids who know they do not want to go to college. The people who set up such programs tell me that AP or IBEnglish courses are very helpful, as are a few other courses at that level. It is paternalistic in a bad way to say that those kids just don't need to learn as much as the college kids. It is not true and is why employers are so unhappy with kids who apply to them right out of high school.

How dangerous is it that schools are judged on certain measurable criteria that the schools then move to boost those criteria, perhaps at the sacrifice of boosting the children in other educaiton and social areas?

It depends on the criteria. If we are judging schools, as we do now, on the percentage of students who test proficient on standardized tests, then we get harmful practices such as ignoring kids who are way behind and just helping those who are close to the proficiency line. Some say moving to value added test systems, with the school getting credit for moving each kid up from whatever level he started the school year at, may solve that. AP and IB participation works well as a measuring stick, many educators have told me, because it leads schools to involve more kids in challenging courses that will prepare them for college, and had shown evidence that even if they don't pass the AP or IB tests, they are readier for college than they would be if they had not taken AP or IB. That is the insight, which I gleaned from many great teachers 15 yeas ago, which led to the Challenge Index.

Questions: 1) You state that "this year only 7 percent of the approximately 27,000 U.S. public high schools managed to reach that standard and be placed on our list." It seems that the majority of our high schools don't share your philosophy despite the number of years the index has existed. My area loves your index, to my dismay (since I believe that it distorts meeting individual student needs), I would love to know what those schools value, what their curriculum is like, and their philosophy of testing, whether it is tests sold by the CollegeBoard or IBO (or ACIS which you don't explain) or other.

I am not quite sure what you are asking. If I miss your intent, try me again at mathewsj@washpost.com. (that goes for anyone dissatisfied with my answers here today) If you are asking about the schools that like the Index, they tend to have a strong belief in the power of good teaching and think even kids who have done poorly in the past can be raised to a new level with challenging courses that are well taught. They realize that many kids mature in the middle of high schooll and suddenly realize they really like chemistry or US history, and start working. Those schools are open to those changes. Schools that don't like the list are more into what I call the sorting culture, influenced by Ivy League admissions systems. They feel that AP and IB should be just for kids that have strong grade point averages, and don't consider the fact that kids sometimes become better students as part of the maturation process. Such schools are more comfortable with tracking. They try to serve all kids, but their courses for regular kids are often lacking in much content or interest.

You have what you call the "catching up" list, why don't you include a list that utilizes the subsidized lunch and the equity and excellence to highlight schools with high numbers in both columns? I am much more impressed with schools that have high numbers in both of those categories, than anything else. That to me is the true definition of a "Challenge" index. In FCPS for example, it isn't so challenging at Woodson as it is at Stuart for example.

This is a great idea. As you know, the list shows the equity and excellence percentage (percent of seniors who had a passing grade in AP or IB sometime in high school) and the subsidized lunch percentage for every school listed. My purpose in doing that was the same as yr purpose---to alert readers that there were many schools full of low income kids, like Science&Engineering in Dallas, our number one school this year, that defied expectations and ranked very high. Making a separate list of such schools  is something I should try to do. Thank you.

I think the article about The High School Challenge mentioned the difference between the way in which academics are treated vs athletics. Our football team finished the season with a losing record (5th place in conference with 6 teams) and yet they were treated to a 2-hour school assembly reliving all of the great moments of that losing season with a video, which the school paid a substantial amount to have professionally edited, as well as a party for the athletes (not the rest of the school). Meanwhile, our quiz team won both our local and regional championship and placed 2nd in the state. Three of our kids are Siemens Westinghouse scholars. When we asked if we could dispaly our regional trophy and 2nd place state trophy, we were told by the administration that there simply wasn't any room (the boys football and basketball team take up more than 10 display cases). The kids' accomplishments weren't even mentioned in a school-wide assemblly a week ago. We keep hearing that we need to recognize academic acheivement in our schools, but our school administrators don't seem to follow through. Have you found this to be true in other schools?

This is, sadly, very common. Please tell me via mathewsj@washpost.com which school this was. One of the reasons I devised the Challenge Index and made it a ranked list is because I noticed the Post, and other papers, often ranked weekly our local high schools in football and baskeball, but never gave that kind of recognition to academics. I hope you complain some more, and if you let me write about this, that will be a column people will read.

2) You state: "I decided not to count passing rates in this way because I found that... (some schools) opened the courses to all but encouraged only the best students to take the tests." Perhaps this is due to the costs of the tests, and they didn't want to burden families (or taxpayers) with paying for it when it might not prove beneficial in terms of college..i.e. parents hope they will save tuition monies by paying the $87 fee, but if they won't save, it doesn't really make financial sense to fork over the fee. After all isn't it the course that is beneficial in the Texas study you consistently tout?

There is federal and some state money to pay the test fees for kids whose families are so poor that $87 would make a difference. Remember, that is less than the cost of a pair of high quality sneakers. And it is a small cost for what would be for ANY student a huge plus in getting ready for college so that the tuition dollars are not wasted on an unready kid who has to drop out for academic reasons. I think high schols should pay all AP and IB fees, as most northern Virginia schools do.

Can we download the whole index?

You are asking the wrong guy. I am technically challenged and don't know. Send that question to our project leader at David.Marino-Nachison@washingtonpost.com. If that doesn't work email me. My guess is that is NOT possible for several reasons.

Hi Jay! Can you tell me why we are listed as #2 in 2008, and not #1? thanks! Julia Toews

We may have erred in slight ways in recovering those historical numbers for the school profiles. Email elizabeth.flock@washingtonpost.com and me about that.

Why keep using this index? As a graduate of an Arlington County Public School, I noticed that almost all of them are in the top tier. That's because Arlington pays for students to take the AP exam. What's more, when I was in high school about 10 years ago, you received an extra point on your final GPA for taking the test, even if you scored a 1. I love that my school is listed at the top, it just doesn't seem like a fair assessment when certain counties pay for students to take the exams when others do not.

I get this good question a lot. Think about this from another perspective. What policy best promotes learning, paying for the exams and giving extra grade points or not doing those things? The purpose of the good schools of Arlington County and elsewhere is not to look good on this list but to raise the achievement of as many students as  possible. The policies you suggest are unfair are the policies that will encourage more students, particularly the average students who are barred from AP in many schools, to take more challenging courses. I designed the list in part so such "unfair" policies would be enouraged. You have to think about learning, not competiton with other schools. It is remarkable how many peoople, even very smart ones like you, miss that.

Wouldn't a more accurate "ranking" reflect scores on the AP exams, as opposed to availability of the classes? We know some seniors on the west coast who have gotten "A+'s" in their AP classes, but then get 2's or 3's on the exam, and others in Fairfax County who have earned B's in the classes and the 5's on the exams. I have heard that this kind of range even occurs between different high school within the county itself. I don't see how just allowing kids to take certain courses necessarily contributes to their college preparedness.

Whenever you introduce test scores to a school assessment, you weight the assessment in favor of schools with the most affluent students. So you are not judging the quality of the school but the incomes of the students' parents. By looking at just participation, we are more likely to spotlight schools with educators trying hard to make kids better,even if most of their students are poor.

Where is the list of Public Elites?

It is supposed to be there. Keep searching. If you don't find it, email me.

I have often wondered why your index does not have a way to include the number of students that scored at each level(ie 1,2,3,4,5,) on the AP test. THe more students that get a 5 the better that school is a preparing students and teaching them the material. Many students do not even get a 2 on the test, yet they are used for your challenge as are students who receive a 1. Just using the number of students that took the test does not really show the true quality of the teaching process. Schools differ greatly when you look at the % of students achieving 3,4, or 5's Few school accept below a 34 on an AP for placing out of a course let alone receiving college credit.

That is not a bad idea, although I should point out that national stats show that as more students take AP, the average passing rate declines, but the number of student getting 5s increaes, which is the more important stat because it reveals that more students are helped by opening the door to AP wider. And remember we have research showing that students who get 2s do better in college than similar students who do not take AP.

It's been awhile but I graduated from West Potomac in 1999. I took a lot of AP courses, got credit for them, and found that my classes in college were easier than the AP classes in high school. I don't think the college courses were easier, in reality, but I think the excellent preparation and experience of college level stressing out in high school helped prepare me in a good way.

A very wise observation. Thank you.

Could you go into more detail on why you think that the raw number of AP tests taken is a more useful measure then the pass rates (taking socio-economic status into account). Perhaps %pass rate + % Free/reduced lunch would do a better job of telling you the "best" schools.

I could start using a regression analysis to weight the results higher for school that had lots of low income kids, but you would have to trust my idea of what a good weight is. I think it is better to be simple and understandable. Parents can make an intelligent decision when the Index shows that one school in their neighborhood has a lot more AP and IB involvement than another. That is much better than the current system in which schools are judged by test scores, which are closely linked to parental income, as you know. Anybody can get the number of AP tests and graduating seniors at their local school and calculate its index number. I like that. You couldn't do that with the US News high school list formula, which was otherwise well meant.

I'm sure that the Whitman HS community is freaking out that not only is that school #7 in Mont Co, but #3 in Bethesda. But aren't they really all about the same?

They are. That is why I recommend in the FAQs that you not make a big deal of the ranks, but look at the index ratings, and also note that Whitman is in the top one half of one percent of all schools measured this way.

Any indications of long-term success from the change in the DC schools? You indicate that 75% achieve the 1.00 hurdle.

They are improving on participation, but they have to make the teaching better and the early grade courses better to get the passing rate up.

Why do we continue to reward higher income school districts with better teachers who are capable of leading AP courses? The problem with my high school was limited space (I was turned away in H.S and still did very well in college), while my friends who lived in Howard County had no problem with accessing AP courses. How is revenue sharing tax revenues across school districts not the answer?

An intriguing idea but not politically possible, I think. Remember this is a matter of teachers making individual choices to work at high income schools. It would help to have more bonuses for good teachers willing to work inthe inner city.

You misunderstood my question. I am asking about the 93% of the schools that didn't meet your standards. What curriculum do they offer? Do they disagree with the whole testing culture? The focus on AP/IB/ACIS? Or do they all restrict access to AP? I want to understand the philosophy of the schools NOT on the list.

I did try to describe those schools. They have the usual array of courses but have far fewer AP courses because they believe in tracking and only let strong B or A students take AP. They AGREE with the testing culture and like the fact that by restricting access to AP, they get a higher passing rate, which they brag about. They think it hurts average kids to take AP and ignore evidence to the contrary. One study shows only half of students ready for AP, based on PSAT scores, are allowed to take AP.

Why is there so large a gap between 12th grade (high school senior) and 13th grade (college freshman) courses that one must take special "advanced" courses to succeed when progressing to that next level? Time to step up every pre-college grade so that anyone that successfully graduates high school has no problem performing at the same level in college.

You are exactly right. We do not have high enough expectations for our high school students. We say--oh, they will get that in college---when the truth is they will not be ready for that in college if they don't do more in high school.

You stated: "There is federal and some state money to pay the test fees for kids whose families are so poor that $87 would make a difference. Remember, that is less than the cost of a pair of high quality sneakers. And it is a small cost for what would be for ANY student a huge plus in getting ready for college so that the tuition dollars are not wasted on an unready kid who has to drop out for academic reasons. I think high schols should pay all AP and IB fees, as most northern Virginia schools do." So you object to wasting money on "unready kids who have to drop out for academic reasons" and yet you seem to think this isn't applicable at all to your belief of having all kids take AP courses.

. Investing money in preparing the kid while he is still in high school so he can handle college courses is NOT a waste. But paying tuition for a kid whose academic needs you have ignored by not paying for an $87 AP test is a waste.

I tried to order a copy of the insert and they were sold out. We made the list...any idea about reprints?

That strikes me as a wonderful idea. I will suggest that as soon as I close this fine and challenging discussion.

What is the biggest surprise for you when you review the results of the Challenge?

I mentioned it earlier. It is schools in out of the way places, full of low income kids, who suddenly pop up very high because they have had the good fortune to be run by very far-sighted educators. Take a look at the profile for the two high ranking schools in Corbett, Ore, which is a farming community in the middle of nowhere. That knocked me for a loop, and I had to talk to those people for a while to satisfy myself they were for real. I hope to visit them soon. There are a lot of other surprising schools out there, all because of some very hard working teachers.

I loved your questions. Please spread the word about the list, and tell skeptics I also love hostile questions.

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Jay Mathews
Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for The Washington Post. He has ranked Washington-area public high schools using the Challenge Index since 1998.
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