ABCs of The High School Challenge

May 20, 2012

1. How does The High School Challenge work?

We take the total number of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Advanced International Certificate of Education tests given at a school each year and divide by the number of seniors who graduated in May or June. I call this formula the Challenge Index. With a few exceptions, public schools that achieved a ratio of at least 1.000, meaning they had as many tests in 2011 as they had graduates, were put on the national list at washingtonpost.com/highschoolchallenge. We rank the schools in order of ratio, with the highest (19.522) achieved by the BASIS school in Tucscon.

I think 1.000 is a modest standard. A school can reach that level if only half of its students take one AP, IB or AICE test in their junior year and one in their senior year. But this year only 9 percent of the approximately 22,000 U.S. public high schools managed to reach that standard and be placed on our list.

2. Why do you count only the number of tests given, and not how well the students do on the tests?

Some schools brag about their high passing rates on AP or IB, meaning the percentage of test-takers who scored 3, 4 or 5 on the 5-point AP exam or 4, 5, 6 or 7 on the 7-point IB exam. Passing scores make students eligible for credit at many colleges and universities.

I decided not to count passing rates in this way because I found that most high schools kept those rates artificially high by allowing only top students to take the courses. In other instances, they opened the courses to all but encouraged only the best students to take the tests.

AP, IB and AICE are important because they give average students a chance to experience the trauma of heavy college reading lists and long, analytical college examinations. Research has found that even low-performing students who got only a 2 on an AP test did significantly better in college than similar students who did not take AP.

On the list we also give readers a sense of how well each school’s students are doing on the tests by posting the Equity and Excellence rate, which is the percentage of all graduating seniors, including those who never took an AP course, who had at least one score of 3 or above on at least one AP test sometime in high school. The nonprofit College Board, which oversees the AP program, invented this metric. It found that the average Equity and Excellence rate in 2011 was 18.1 percent.

3. Why don’t I see on the list famous public high schools like Stuyvesant in New York City or Thomas Jefferson in Fairfax County?

We do not include any magnet or charter high school that draws such a high concentration of top students that its average SAT or ACT score exceeds the highest average for any normal-enrollment school in the country. This year, that meant such schools had to have an average SAT score below 1970 or an average ACT score below 29.5 to be included on the list.

The Challenge Index is designed to identify schools that have done the best job in persuading average students to take college-level courses and tests. It does not work with schools that have no, or almost no, average students. We put those schools on our Public Elites list.

4. Why are some other public schools with high AP participation put on a separate list?

In the Washington area and elsewhere, some high schools with large numbers of impoverished students are building significant AP programs, even though the vast majority of students fail the tests. Educators at these schools have concluded that despite low passing rates on the three-hour AP exams, many students still benefit from courses and tests that will build academic muscles for college.

This situation is so different from the norm that it requires a special list, comprising schools that do well on the Challenge Index but have passing rates of less than 10 percent on AP tests. We call it the Catching Up list.

— Jay Mathews

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