Why I’m not writing (anything new) about Jay’s High School Challenge Index this year

I decided not to write about my unrivaled colleague Jay Mathews’s just-published super-famous High School Challenge Index for 2013.

First, I suppose, I should tell you what it is I am not writing about.

Every year, Jay does a list of what he calls America’s Most Challenging High Schools. He has a national list and a greater Washington D.C. list, and an explainer on how he comes up with his index, and a primer on the process. How does he do it? He takes Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Advanced International Certificate of Education tests given at schools and divides by the number of seniors who graduate in May or June, and presto, he has his list. That’s it.

(Incidentally, his No. 1 school on the national list is the American Indian Public Charter High School of Oakland, Calif., which finds itself in the awkward position of being the target of a shutdown threat because the founder of the school, Ben Chavis, has been charged by the school district with misappropriating a lot of public funds. Jay writes about that here.)

Jay, the best-known education reporter in the world, probably, has been doing this for some 15 years now, and his Challenge Index has had an enormous impact around the country.  I have over the years taken issue with Jay’s challenge enterprise, and decided I wouldn’t this year because I’ve said it all before.

What, you ask, have I said?  For example, in 2011, I wrote this:

… The problems with the index go beyond the criticism that is natural for school rankings of any kind: that ranking methodology is subjective, that there is no such thing as “best” when it comes to education. (Jay, I should say, doesn’t use that word to describe his rankings, but what do you think people take away from them?)

 

But the index presents other complications.

Jay’s goal has always been to challenge high schools to strengthen their course offerings and allow every student to have the chance to do college-level work before they actually get to college. That way, they will be ready for college.

 

And most certainly, there are many students who would benefit from being pushed into tough courses while they are in high school.

 

Here’s the rub: There are lots of kids who wouldn’t, and don’t, but are pushed anyway because schools and districts have become fixated on Jay’s list (as colleges and universities are fixated now on placing well in the U.S. News & World Report annual rankings) …

And in 2010 I wrote this:

… Jay says that the “outrage and acclaim” that swirls around his index — and there is a lot of both — “usually swirls around the issue of whether ranking schools is good for you.”

 

Actually, it swirls around more than that. It isn’t just about the value of ranking, which has become an obsession in this country, so much so that few of them have any meaning.

It is about his methodology.

 

Judging a school by a single measure is incomplete. And even though Jay says he isn’t judging the QUALITY of the school, but rather how it is challenging its students, readers view his rankings as a judgment of quality.

 

And in 2009, I wrote this in a letter to Jay:

Because you are so well known — deservedly so; you are the most knowledgeable education writer in the country, if you ask me, which you didn’t — your index began to have more influence than you might have expected.

 

Our colleagues in the media began reporting on your results. Heck, The Post used to do news stories based on your list in The Post!

 

Schools wanted to move up on your list and they began to offer more of these courses, sometimes to populations that may not have seemed ready. Because your index only considers the number of AP and tests taken, and not the actual scores, schools decided to put as many kids into the test pipeline as they could.

 

I have actually heard school administrators and teachers say fairly nasty things about you and your index (I always defended your honor, I swear). They blamed you for what has become an unseemly competition to be the top school on your list, and for fostering an obsession with Advanced Placement.

 

And, for a long time, Jay, I have to admit, I kind of agreed with them.

 

Well, not ‘kind of.’ Flat out.

 

I looked at the list and saw some schools that I knew had serious issues, like big dropout rates, or wide gaps between the achievement of whites and Asians and everybody else.

I visited schools that I thought often did an amazing job of taking students who were very far behind and helping them move forward — but with an approach that didn’t include AP or IB.

 

I just couldn’t bring myself to think that AP and IB were the be-all and end-all of academic achievement — especially after it became known a few years back that some AP courses were more rigorous than others, and that the College Board, which owns the program, was conducting a course audit. I also knew that some of the top schools in the country have dropped their AP programs and created even tougher, more challenging courses.

 

So determining what is challenging and what isn’t seemed, well, more complicated than a single ratio. And I blamed you for driving schools to do things they knew they shouldn’t just so they would look good on your list.

 

And then, Jay, I recently had an epiphany.

 

Here’s what happened: I was thinking about parents, the ones who know better than to push their kids into spending every waking hour trying to build a supercharged resume for college, but who do it anyway.

 

“Why,” I thought, “can’t they just say, ‘No, I will not drive my children insane so they have a chance of going to the Ivy League.’ Where is the personal responsibility?”

 

And then, Jay, I thought of your Challenge Index, and I said to myself:

 

“Wait a minute. Why is it Jay’s fault that school administrators decided to take his index and turn themselves inside out so they might climb higher on his list?

 

“Sure, parents and policy-makers badly pressured the schools to do whatever it took to climb Jay’s list. But couldn’t those educators, the ones who are responsible for teaching future generations how to think for themselves, think for themselves and say, ‘No. It isn’t the right thing for us to do and here’s why, and you can like it or lump it’.”

 

“Where was the responsibility to the institution, and to the students, to say, ‘Jay, your list is entertaining. It is perhaps a single piece in a large puzzle about student achievement and effective public schooling. But really, we aren’t going to pretend it is a sacrosanct list to which we will bow’.”

I could go on and on, but you get the point. I’ve said it before, which is why I’m not writing about it this year.

But I will include some comments from readers of Jay’s ABCs of the index:

mjh34

Many of the most elite prep schools in the country are doing away with AP classes altogether. So this list excludes many of the top schools, the schools elite enough that they can do away with APs and still retain their prestige and rank.

and

bayanjim
I taught American Government (Basic, Regular, and AP) for 28 years at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia. From 1969 (my first year) to 1997 when I retired, I saw the finest teaching staff work through an evolving diversity of the student body. We taught all socio-economic classes and racial groups of students during those years. Teachers were there, not for the glory of teaching only rich, college-bound students, but to help each student reach his or her highest potential. That is what makes a school a winner. This entire rating system is elitist, and based on all the wrong criteria. I have noticed that Wakefield did not “make the cut.” Just check the qualifications of the teachers over the last 50 years and you will be amazed at the fact that so many had all the academic qualifications of a college professor, but chose to teach in high school. But additionally, they learned HOW to teach to a diverse population.
Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · April 18, 2013