West Potomac High School in Fairfax County and Oakland Mills High School in Howard County are as close as schools come to being twins. Both are in affluent counties and serve ethnically and economically diverse populations. Forty-seven percent of West Potomac students and 52 percent of Oakland Mills students are black or Hispanic. Thirty-eight percent at West Potomac and 31 percent at Oakland Mills are from low-income families.
But when I indulge in my obsessive comparison of schools by their college-level course programs, significant differences emerge. Oakland Mills often bars students from taking Advanced Placement classes if they don’t have B’s in previous courses. West Potomac lets in everyone who signs up and pays the test fees. The AP test participation rate at West Potomac is three times what it is at Oakland Mills, but the passing rate on tests at the Fairfax school is lower: 61 percent, compared with 78 percent at Oakland Mills.
writes a weekly column about education and the Class Struggle blog.
( Matt McClain / FOR THE WASHINGTON POST ) - Lindsey Boggess, 17, bottom right, waits with other students to take an AP exam at West Potomac High School in Fairfax County.
That wide gap in approaches to challenging courses is why I started rating high schools 13 years ago by how successful they were at giving students a taste of college trauma. In a national context, as college-level programs such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate have become the prime means of preparing students for higher education, giving more students those opportunities has become crucial and controversial. Only half of students who go to college get to take college-level courses in high school, which many educators think is fine and others think is wrong. That controversy is one reason my rankings have drawn such attention.
The national list is being published now for the first time by The Washington Post. We call it The High School Challenge.
The idea for the list came to me as I was completing a book about America’s best public high schools. I kept running into the same mindless policy: Schools refused to let average students take the college-level courses and tests, reserving them for the better students. Research and common sense suggested that C students would learn much and be readier for college if they also took AP, but few schools appreciated that.
To illuminate the issue, I began ranking schools in 1998 on participation in AP and IB tests. Later, I added the Cambridge Advanced International Certificate of E
ducation exam to what I named the Challenge Index. The national list started that year in Newsweek, the local list in The Post. This year’s national ranking moved to The Post after The Washington Post Co. sold Newsweek last summer.
The Challenge Index calculation is simple. I wanted everyone to be able to understand it and use it. Add up all the AP, IB or AICE tests taken in a given year. Divide by the number of graduating seniors. The target I set is also simple: Every school should reach a ratio of at least 1.000 — that is, as many college-level tests taken as diplomas issued. Any school that does will make my national list, unless its passing rate on those tests is unusually low or the school is unusually selective.