Alternatives to the Challenge Index

April 4

The Washington Post’s Challenge Index, which began in 1998, is not the only way to rank high schools. Here is a quick survey of some others:

In 2007, U.S. News & World Report launched a high school list as part of its expanded rankings of several American institutions, inspired by its popular college rankings that began in 1983.

U.S. News uses a three-step analysis. First, find high schools that did better than expected on state tests, given their percentage of students from low-income families. Then, determine whether their economically disadvantaged, black and Hispanic students did better than the average for those groups on the tests.

Schools that survived those two screenings are further evaluated through formulas based on participation and success in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate tests.

In late 2007, the Wall Street Journal published a ranked list of 65 high schools based on the percentage of graduates who enrolled at eight selective colleges: Harvard, Johns Hopkins, MIT, Pomona, Princeton, Swarthmore, the University of Chicago and Williams. This was a “facebook” list, although it had nothing to do with the social networking service of that name — it was based in part on information from the facebook each college publishes with photos of its freshman class.

Worth magazine attempted a similar list in 2003, rating high schools on the percentage of recent graduates who turned up in the freshman facebooks of three Ivy League colleges: Harvard, Yale and Princeton. The Worth and Journal lists consisted mostly of private schools. There were six public schools in Worth’s top 100 and six in the Journal’s top 65.

The highest-ranked school on the Journal’s list was the private Collegiate School in New York City, where 13 of 50 graduating seniors enrolled in the eight colleges, a 26 percent “success rate.” The highest-ranked Washington-area schools were private Holton-Arms in Montgomery County, No. 31 with a 10.8 percent success rate; Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County (one of the list’s few public schools, although highly selective), No. 47 with 9.1 percent; and private Sidwell Friends, No. 55 with 8.5 percent.

In 1998, when I first ranked local schools in The Post, I also began ranking schools nationally for Newsweek, using the Challenge Index method I now use in The Post’s America’s Most Challenging High Schools list. When The Washington Post Co. sold Newsweek, I moved my national list to The Post. The new owners of Newsweek started their own America’s Best High Schools list in 2011, combining my methodology with data on graduation rates, college acceptance rates and test scores. Newsweek plans to produce a 2014 list that the magazine expects to release in the fall.

Both the U.S. News and Newsweek lists give too much emphasis to test scores, and thus too much to family income, in my view, but this is a subject on which reasonable school rankers can disagree.

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Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years.
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