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Education: Challenge Index

Back-to-School Series

Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 9, 2004; 1:00 PM

What makes a school good? What makes it challenging? What should parents look for when selecting schools?

This week marks the eighth annual Challenge Index (see full report), which ranks Washington area schools. This year a record 61 percent of the region's public schools achieved 1.000 ratings on the index. But with this great growth in college-level courses and tests has come some surprises.

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Post staff writer Jay Mathews mentioned them in his Tuesday Class Struggle column, Six Surprises From Challenging High Schools. He was online Thursday, Dec. 9, at 1 p.m. ET to take your questions about local schools.

The transcript follows

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Jay Mathews: Sorry for being late. I will get started right away.

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Claremont, Calif.: I agree in principle with your ranking (i.e. that challenging students to take AP/IB classes is a good thing), but I wonder about how significant your rankings are. There are some schools which that have diverse student bodies and do well on the rankings. I understand that the ranking might be somewhat misrepresentative because some students take many AP/IB courses and another large group takes hardly any. This isn't to say there's necessarily a race or income correlation, but as I understand your system, there's no way to tell through your ranking if, for example, a school is half very dedicated students and half not so dedicated. Would there be any way to rank schools by the mode number of college placement exams taken?

Jay Mathews: Please e-mail me some more of your thinking at mathewsj@washpost.com. I get the sense of a good idea here, but I don't quite see it yet. On the Washington area challenge index published today, we put the percentage of students on free and reduced lunch for each school, an excellent way to see that there are many schools with lots of low-income kids, like Wakefield in Arlington or Jeb Stuart in Fairfax, who do very well on the index. I have found that although there are, particularly in suburban schools, a few kids who take a lot of tests, a significant growth in test taking is always the result of more kids participating, and not just few kids taking even more tests.

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Fairfax, Va.: Has the Post printed the names of the National Merit Semifinalists that were announced in September? I never saw it but may have missed it.

Jay Mathews: I think we are saving those for next week. Message me at the address above and I will find out.

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Vienna, Va.: Mr. Mathews,

I always find your IB/AP articles interesting as a graduate of George Mason. From your article today it appears that the school now has AP & IB -- the only option we had in my years was IB. While it's true that I had a harder time gaining college credit than my AP peers -- that was of secondary concern to me as my first year of college was far less stressful than theirs. A 20-page paper was nothing to me -- I was used to writing at least 4 a year (for Mr. Peloquin no less). I was used to studying on my own and interpreting information not just memorizing. IB exams are all essay, no multiple choice -- a great prep for college.

It might be interesting (if you haven't already done so) to interview IB and AP students after their first year for how they felt. My impression was -- they had more credits -- I felt more prepared which for me was way more important. But these times they are a changing so perhaps my impressions are less relevant.

Nice article -- its been about 15 years since I was at George Mason but it's nice to see that some things haven't changed!

Jay Mathews: Your excellent impressions still have meaning today. AP is great, but IB is even better, if you want to be ready for freshman year.

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Rockville, Md.: In order to address your concerns about counting tests that kids ignore or "blow off", have you ever thought about just counting those test in which they score "3" or better? Maybe you can have both measurements, your current one and the "3 or better" measurement?

Jay Mathews: A good suggestion. I am tempted, and may do that eventually, but for now I think it would confuse people looking at the list. And would be harmful to inner city schools that get NO kids passing, but need to keep giving them that dose of AP and IB.

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Arlington, Va.: When I was earning my IB diploma 12 years ago, my Florida school district and the high school parent's group paid for all of our tests. This enabled us to take both IB and AP exams, and in turn receive whatever credit our college of choice would offer. Is it unusual for an IB student to take exams in both IB and AP?

Jay Mathews: It is still unusual, although many kids in the big IB schools, like Richard Montgomery here, do it, to protect themselves against idiot colleges that don't understand IB. I don't count those overlapping AP tests in the index.

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League City, Texas: You've printed quotes in several of your articles saying that parents are hesitant about the IB program because it is less known in colleges. I am an IB alum that also took several AP classes, and my university accepted my AP and IB higher level credits equally. Has there ever been any sort of data gathered on the number of colleges that do and don't accept IB credit?

Jay Mathews: Take a look at the AP and IB rules for your college. I bet they still give ZERO credit for a Standard Level IB course, which giving credit for a similar AP course. If I am wrong, let me know, because they will be very unusual, and worth a story. Those rules will change eventually, but it should not have taken this long. However, the IB kids are not really hurt much, because they usually can persuade, sometimes through taking a college placement test, that they know their stuff.

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Linthicum, Md.: Before No Child Left Behind, schools excluded low-achieving students from standardized tests and published false, inflated scores (check with former Secretary of Education Paige, I'm sure he's familiar with the drill).

After NCLB, many (though fortunately not all) schools are herding unqualified students into advanced placement-level classes in which they learn little; and schools manipulate arguably useless scores for the sake of status.

Students are no brighter, and achievement hasn't increased, but education is presently being held hostage to a right-wing political ideology, and you're like the court jester, dancing around the media with your rosy songs and shiny "Quality Index" trinket.

My wife and I spend a good deal of time and attention guarding our children from as much of this nonsense as we can. I take some comfort in knowing that, like all fads, you and the current state of education soon will vanish.

Jay Mathews: Show me some data to prove your point. I have data to show you are wrong. Go to the washingtonpost.com site, search for my name, and look at my Outlook piece last Sunday. A new study shows that students who take but FLUNK an AP test are two or three times as likely to graduate from college in five years as students who did not try AP. Keeping kids out of AP who want to take it, including your "unqualified" students, is malpractice. You might also read my book Escalante, about the wonders done with hundreds of "unqualified" students in an inner city school.

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Richmond, Va.: Your ongoing advocacy for AP and IB courses for most high school students seems well-founded, but what about the notion that it is the rigor of these courses, plus the motivation of a difficult test at the end of the year, that stimulates students? Are AP and IB courses simply the best-available example of tough, demanding, rigorous courses that help students rise to higher expectations? The original intent of these classes -- to offer college-level subjects to students who had mastered the available high school-level classes -- seems to have been lost in the shuffle. Instead we have substituted AP and IB classes for the standard curriculum, which SHOULD be rigorous, anyway. Any thoughts?

Jay Mathews: You are right on all counts, and AP and IB are now filling this role because there is nothing else. In most schools, the honors and college prep courses are very undemanding. AP and IB are the only incorruptible exams we have in high school, and we are lucky to have them.

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Herndon, Va.: There is so much attention and pressure on the stellar students with the A average or who are top athletes, but what about students who have a solid B or even B's and a few C's? What about the average student who's a good person, hard-working, serious, with community involvement but just doesn't get all A's or isn't a top jock?
It seems like high schools ignore them. The struggling students get attention because their failure hurts the school's reputation. The top students and jocks get attention because their success helps the school. But what about the kids in the middle? No one seems to care about them. They're invisible in all the discussions I've seen.

Jay Mathews: That is exactly the point of the Challenge Index we published today, to show which schools are paying attention to those motivated C students.

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Spotsylvania, Va.: Jay -- Do the results for Spotsylvania and Stafford counties and their schools take into account the AP courses taught at the Commonwealth Governor's School? If not, you are drastically undercounting the AP offerings in those two districts. CGS students attend half the day at their "home" high schools, and half the day at one of four CGS sites, where the curriculum includes 11 AP courses spread out over the four years of study.

Jay Mathews: I get the data from the schools. If they count those kids as part of their student population, then their tests are counted. I would be very surprised if the schools intentionally shortchanged themselves. But I will ask them. Message me if you want to find out what they tell me.

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Oakton, Va.: Jay: My child goes to Oakton High School, a large Fairfax County school with a good reputation. But the school is very large and there seems to be very little effort to give any type of personal attention to students unless they're in big trouble or some kind of star. Teachers are under a lot of pressure time-wise, counselors overworked and sometimes clueless, administrators--well, they're never the ones to deal with everyday stuff. What can a parent do if they have concerns about their child struggling or having personal problems that might impact their classwork?

Jay Mathews: The problem is a real one, and as a parent you have to call the counselor, or the teacher, and have a conversation. If you are not satisfied with the results, you have to speak to the principal. But first make sure, by talking to your kid, that you understand the problem. Even at little private schools with lots of resources, some students this age get confused and lost, and just have to work at it and grow up a little. Help them first and see what happens.

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washingtonpost.com: Here is Jay's Outlook piece from Sunday: See? If Pushed, Kids Deliver.

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Alexandria, Va.: I was disheartened to see my childrens' future high school, T.C. Williams did not even crack the top 100. There's no way I can afford private school. Should I be worried?

Jay Mathews: Absolutely not. Ignore the ranking. Look at its rating. It was just under 1.000, and as I said in the accompanying story, would rank in the top 10 percent of all U.S. schools. And next year it will be way above 1.000 because, like Arlington and Fairfax, all AP kids will be required to take the tests.

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Vienna, Va.: What is your view on the Thomas Jefferson admissions process? Do you think that it was better before racial and geographic quotas were considered? How do you feel about the fact that the class size has increased from 400 students a class to 500 in the past 5 years? Do you think either will affect the quality of education at this prestigious high school?

Jay Mathews: The class size isn't anywhere near 500 yet, as far as I know, although it will likely move in that direction. The new admissions system is just starting, so I would give it a chance. Essentially, they are adopting Harvard's admissions system, which seems to have held up okay. I suspect Jefferson will continue to maintain its high standards. But let me know if you see signs of something else happening.

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Falls Church, Va.: My question concerns schools at the top of the list (and those intentionally not ranked). When a school (public or private) has an already high achieving student population, can't AP exams become restrictive by steering teachers to specific topics they might prefer not to dwell on? The idea is that the exams for the students be held accountable to a high standard, and in general such accountability seems like a good source for ranking. But with the exams occurring in some districts nearly a month before some area schools let out, can't curriculum and time restrictions sometimes do more harm than good?

At some point won't elite schools "rebel" against the AP/IB system, especially since similarly elite colleges give little or no course credit for them?

Jay Mathews: There is a tiny rebellion going on, at Fieldston in N.Y. and Crossroads in L.A. and a few other places. But I doubt that it will go far. Teachers in those schools consider AP a straitjacket, but when the AP label is removed, the courses they create are still so close to the AP model that many of their kids still take the AP tests and do well. Smart educators know that even the best schools need an incorruptible standard, and without AP or IB, you can have teachers get lazy and not notice.

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Rockville, Md.: I have a daughter in 8th grade who is applying to several magnet programs, as well as an AP-based program at our local high school. She has heard from numerous friends with older siblings that the AP-based program is a waste of time. The common complaints are that there is way too much work, the subject matter is not as interesting because there is a great deal of teaching to the test, that colleges no longer consider AP classes as an asset in the admissions process, and that better grades in less challenging courses help more in the college admissions process than tougher courses with somewhat lower grades. It is hard to evaluate the validity of these concerns. Since your index is based on the number of AP and IB tests that a school gives, I think you believe there is real value in an education filled with such classes. How would you respond to the criticisms my daughter is hearing?

Jay Mathews: You might suggest she get a new group of friends. They are completely wrong. It is nearly impossible to get into a selective college now if you do NOT have a good sampling of AP or IB courses on your transcript. If you don't, they will ask why, and the only good is excuse would be: "My school doesn’t offer those courses." Call any selective college admissions office and ask about this. They will set you straight, and then maybe your child should have a little talk with her friends.

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Washington, D.C.: Your statement that the challenge index doesn't just reflect SES isn't supported by your data. If you calculate the correlation between lunch subsidy and rating, you get about -0.3 (it depends on how you calculate it). The correlation is also statistically significant. While this isn't a huge correlation, it's not insubstantial and shouldn't be dismissed.

Dan

Jay Mathews: You are quite right. Most of the schools on the list have few poor students, but I dare you to rank schools by their SAT averages and find ANY schools of the sort you find high on my list, with lots of poor students, anywhere in the top 100 SAT schools. Sometimes it is much more useful to look at individual schools than averages and correlations, and that is why I name each school. Then you can take a look at what is going on at high poverty schools like Springbrook or Annandale or Wakefield and ask, how are these kids able to do so much preparation for college, and other low SES schools are not? The answer is simply their policy toward AP and IB.

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Rockville, Md.: Can you please clarify -- what is the Harvard admissions process that T.J. uses? Thanks!

Jay Mathews: T.J. used to look at just test scores and grades for the first cut. Now, like Harvard, they are going to look at extra curriculars and personal qualities and other stuff, what selective colleges call holistic assessment.

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College Park, Md.: Jay, Has your index been reviewed by anyone in academia for its validity? Has the Post considered asking someone in higher education to test your survey results? How do you think it would stand up to such scrutiny?

Jay Mathews: I have had it reviewed by statisticians and testing experts, and they say it does measure something valid and important. I would love an academic to do a full-bore study. Lots of superintendents in other parts of the country have adopted it, as well as some news organizations. It is pretty simple, and I don't think you need a PhD to see how and why it helps identify schools that are doing their jobs.

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Houston, Texas: Mr. Mathews,
In advocating and justifying the addition of, for example, "C" students to Advanced Placement classes, you often cite evidence showing that teachers can't dumb down their lessons because students must take national tests. You say that scores at these schools show that there is still a large percentage of students who pass these exams. However, I have a serious problem with this logic; in my experience teachers often must move slower because other students just don't understand what's going on, perhaps because they often don't read the textbook or spend a long time completing homework. However, often advanced students pass these tests because they study a large part on their own. They want to pass these tests to get college credit, and so if a teacher doesn't get to a large part of the material, they will buy study guides and study the textbook themselves. Academically driven students who are on a semester system do this all the time (students taking the test in May after completing the class in January must relearn material they have forgotten and students in spring classes need to learn the material that hasn't been covered yet in class). I don't have a problem with students challenging themselves, but it should not come at the expense of academically advanced students who, without question, belong in those classes.

Jay Mathews: I am still waiting for an academically advanced student in Fairfax County, where they opened up AP to all six years ago, to write or call me and complain that this hurt their AP experience. It has been six years, and no complaints so far. Having a few students in class who have to ask the teacher questions and listen carefully to the answers does not, it seems, make for a lesser class. You should sit in and see how these AP teachers work sometimes. They LOVE the fact that they can help some kids who are struggling, rather than have class of kids who really don't need their help at all.

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Washington, D.C.: As a transplant from the Midwest, I've been puzzled for years by your fascination with the AP/IB tests. These tests are MUCH less prevalent there than they are here on the East Coast, (my home state of Minnesota, for example, would have a dismal .43 challenge ranking) yet the school systems in most of the Midwest outperform the nation as a whole.

The Challenge Index itself and the statistics used to back its logic, such as the chart showing college completion rates of students who had taken tests vs. those who hadn't seem to mistakenly conflate correlation with causation. E.G. students who took an AP test are more likely to graduate from college. I would bet that teenagers who drive new cars are more likely to graduate from college also, but wouldn't argue for school districts buying them cars.

AP and IB are both excellent, challenging curricula designed to prepare students for the rigors of college. However, they are not the only or even necessarily the best approach, they are just the most heavily marketed. Maybe paying for every student in America to take these tests would improve student performance, there's no reason to believe it wouldn't, but also no compelling proof that it would. It would DEFINITELY give more money and influence to the testmakers, however.

Jay Mathews: I have spent 22 years inside schools watching how these courses and tests transform kids and schools. I only came up with the index later to dramatize the changes I have seen. Read my book, Escalante, and get back to me with your further thoughts. If you can cite a program that is as good as AP or IB, and doesn't use college level tests, I would love to see it. Those Midwestern states you cite are bragging on their high-standardized test scores, which are good to have, but a measure in large part of their different ethnic and income mix. The data shows, in all parts of the country, that they have a harder time the first year of college because their high schools told them they couldn’t take AP because of their B and C grades. It doesn’t make any sense, but if you can point me to another program that has the same impact as IB and AP, I would love to write about it. In fact, read my book Class Struggle, chapter 7, about a Midwestern school that exemplifies your thinking, New Trier. Correlation is not causation, unless you have been on the ground watching lives change.

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New York, N.Y.: How do you account for the fact that AP is offered a la carte, while IB also offers a diploma program that is so much more rigorous to manage as a student? Is this factored into the ranking? How?

Jay Mathews: I just count the tests, AP or IB. It would be too complicated to give IB schools extra credit for having the extended essay and CAS and TOK and the other IB extras. But they do make IB a somewhat better program. I prefer just to celebrate AP and IB as the gold standard.

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Washington, D.C.: Jay,

Did you say that your data come from the schools rather than the AP Program/College Board? I'd be a little concerned about their validity if you don't try to cross-check the two sources for potential error, at least on a random basis.

Also, have you considered looking at AP courses online that some states and school districts offer? Would this change your Challenge Index?

Jay Mathews: Although some students take the courses online, they still have to take the tests at a school with pencils and paper, like everyone else, and if they are enrolled at a school, it gets the credit on the index.
The schools figures have proved to be accurate in the 8 years I have been doing this. I would love to get the College Board's school-by-school figures, but they will not release them. They say it is the school's decision whether to give me the numbers or not, and private schools, most of them, sadly refuse to.

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Washington, D.C.: Not related to Challenge Index, but . . . My child's teacher (elementary school) has already missed more than three weeks of school due to serious illness. The kids have had more than a dozen different substitutes! Any ideas as to what we, as parents, can reasonably ask to have done to improve the situation? There's no telling when the regular teacher will be well enough to be back. Would you, as a parent, ask to have your child moved to a different classroom? Arrange for private tutoring?

Jay Mathews: I would be creating a very polite ruckus with the principal---calling every day, calling your school board member, calling meetings with the other parents. It is a tough situation but it will be solved quicker if they know you care. But be nice while you push. That helps.

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Brunswick, Md.: Can we get more detailed information on a high school and its score? I am particularly interested in getting information on Brunswick High School.

Thanks, Barbara Smith

washingtonpost.com: You can find specific results for each school and read the methodology for the index in the full results table. Here's how Brunswick did: Rank, 145; Lunch Subsidy, 10%; Rating, 0.367.

Jay Mathews: That's right. It looks like it could do much better, given that low percentage of low-income kids.

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Fairfax County, Va.: Hi Jay,

Thanks for all the great information on the college search process over the years.

I have a question specific to students at Fairfax County Schools: What possible reason could the administration have for setting an A as only scores of 94 and up (4.0 GPA); a B-plus as 89-93 (3.5 GPA); etc...? Why would a school system deliberately try to implement grade deflation on its students when their GPAs are going to be compared with students from the rest of the country, where almost all students will have a 4.0 GPA if their scores are 90 and above? I'm mystified (and a bit annoyed, as you might guess...)

Jay Mathews: I don't think in the end it makes much difference. One of the reasons why God has not destroyed the evil little SAT is that it does help colleges figure out these slight differences in grading systems, and anyway, good grades and good scores only get you in the maybe pile at the most selective schools these days. You would just bless all the angels that your kid is in a Fairfax school, where you know he or she is getting the best education available in the country. And thus will be ready for whatever good college he or she chooses.

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Baltimore, Md.: I wonder if you could say more about just what your claims of causality are. I am a university faculty member who regularly works with the Baltimore City Public Schools, especially high schools. When I imagine some of these schools (particularly the zoned neighborhood high schools) trying to implement an AP or an IB program without any other changes (such as increased resources, remedial help for kids who have been passed for years without achieving grade level, etc.), I can't imagine it would make a difference. So, is it the AP and IB classes you think makes the difference, or something else that perhaps produces the AP/IB classes and the changes?

Jay Mathews: In the schools I have studied, in East L.A., D.C., N.Y., Houston and elsewhere, having AP and IB sets up an expectation of kids NEEDING more of those resources, and raises the likelihood they will get them. It also attracts and keeps much better teachers, which is the most important resource. No academic has yet come up with a way to measure this phenomenon, but I hope they do. Talk to any big city superintendent, and they will bend your ear for hours.

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Lincoln Park, D.C.: With so many students getting free lunches -- just about all high schools in the District have more than 50 percent of the student body qualifying for free lunches -- wouldn't it make more sense to cut down on bureaucracy and offer everyone free lunches, especially in the low-income neighborhoods?

Jay Mathews: What an interesting idea. You should write the new superintendent in D.C. and suggest it.

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Wheaton, Md.: This is great information regarding public schools, however, I still would love to see information that would help us compare this to the private schools in the area. In our public school, we have heard of safety issues with fights, etc., among students. Because of this, we want to look at all our options. How do the elite private schools like Holton Arms and Landon rank? Other than a more sheltered environment and large tuition bill, are you getting a superior education? One would think so by speaking to those who children attend those schools, but where can we get unbiased information?

Jay Mathews: Ask them to give me their data and I will be happy to do so. You see the sampling of private schools at the end of the list. Most of the most selective privates would do well on the list, and be above 2.000, and in some cases 3.000 or higher.

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Bowie, Md.: What if your child's school is not in the survey? My son goes to DeMatha and as I recall they were included last year (though their principal later challenged your premise).

Jay Mathews: Dan McMahon, the DeMatha principal and one of my favorite educators, will not give me his data. Work on him. He believes, as many private school educators do, that you cannot define their schools with a number. I say: you are saying, in essence, that parents are too dumb to look at that number and draw their own intelligent conclusions.

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Upper Marlboro, Md.: Hate to sound really stupid, but are students automatically signed up for AP exams or do I need to go stand on the principal's desk at my daughter's school and start screaming? I paid for a test earlier this year (AP Psychology and English), but I don't remember what. And I don't remember her taking an AP test (English) last year.

Jay Mathews: The student signs up to take the test several months before it is given in May. You should ask her now if she is signed up, and if she is not sure, call the teacher in each case. Prince George's is not pushing the AP courses and tests as enthusiastically as other places, the data seems to show.

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Vienna, Va.: Re: New York's question about AP a la carte vs. IB diplomas: in Fairfax County, the high school course guides refer to an AP diploma program. The student is required to pass five AP courses, four of which each must be in English, math, science and history.

Jay Mathews: Yup. this is the new way of AP making sure it doesn't lose the competition with IB. In Frederick County, one school has a program in which freshman are selected for an exact AP copy of IB. They promise to take 6 AP tests and a philosophy course, to mimic IB's Theory of Knowledge course requirement. It is all to the good, it seems to me.

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Montgomery County, Md.: Rest easy, Fairfax County. In Montgomery County, that 89% gets you a 3.0, because there's no such thing as a B+. It all comes out in the wash, as my mother used to say.

Jay Mathews: A wise and indisputable point.

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Washington, D.C.: While in college (I graduated in 2000.) I worked in the admissions office at one of the most selective schools in the Md./D.C./Va. area. I can tell you hands down... lower grades in the hardest, most challenging classes will get you in far more easily than high grades in easier classes. One of the first steps was rating kids based upon the number of AP/IB classes (not tests) relative to the average student at those schools. If you took the easy route, you had an uphill battle to get in.

That said, I grew up in Texas, took many AP courses, but no tests. The reason was simple... my family couldn't pay for the tests and the school district didn't offer to.

Jay Mathews: The voice of truth. And now, thankfully, more districts are paying the testing fees, including about half the schools in this area, by rough count.

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Washington, D.C.: I graduated from Annandale when we were required to take the AP exams.

Anyway, to the "C" students in the class: There will always be students in all classes that don't "get" the subject matter. There will always be students who are not fully challenged. If your child is one of those students who aren't fully challenged, you should explain to him/her that people in college to not get smarter just because they're in college. Even in college you have to take that extra step to challenge yourself. That's just life. And if you REALLY want to challenge yourself, then help out the people who don't get it. Then you also feel better too, because you're helping out a fellow student!

Secondly, I actually had a teacher who didn't KNOW the subject matter, and didn't adequately prepare us. Boy, was that a fun Calculus B/C AP exam. THAT'S a bigger problem--TEACHERS who don't understand what they teach.

Jay Mathews: Another voice of truth. Students understand this stuff. And the beauty of the system in Fairfax and other places now is that teacher cannot hide. every one of those students will have to take the tests and when the scores come back on a test that teacher did not write, his sin will be exposed and the principal will have to do something. One reason why I am beginning to write about the fact that parents can look at AP results.

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Rockville, Md.: "He believes, as many private school educators do, that you cannot define their schools with a number. I say: you are saying, in essence, that parents are too dumb to look at that number and draw their own intelligent conclusions."

How arrogant can you get, Jay? My parents, like many parents I know, hate your rankings. They have intelligently drawn the conclusion that attaching numbers to high schools makes the entire 4 years of college for students much more painful than it should be. There were times when high school was supposed to be among the most fun 4 years of a person's life, but now high school is an extremely competitive environment in which kids purposely are non-cooperative with the slight hope they will improve their own AP scores by not helping others. We need to return high school to a state where the priority is not a quest to take as many AP classes as possible and rather to learn while balancing extracurriculars and getting sleep. My friends and I average about 4 hours of sleep a night as we work to get done the assignments for all of our AP classes and try to pursue sports and clubs. How is this better for anyone, Jay?

Jay Mathews: You just proved my point. Your parents are smart enough to draw their own conclusions, which are right for them.
I would suggest, however, that you note that the kind of uber AP students who you describe represent less than 10 percent of the students in the United States. Our real problem is the vast 50 to 60 percent in the middle who would benefit greatly from taking AP or IB, but are told by their schools that they aren't ready. Cutting back from 5 to 3 or 2 tests for students like you is not a big deal. Being denied a chance to take even one test is.

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Ithaca, N.Y.: Looking back now as a freshman in college, none of my most rewarding classes in high school were AP classes, but rather ones that were more open-ended and let students have freedom in learning. I ended up taking 8 AP tests, which I am glad of now as I entered college with 24 credits, but I hated AP classes to no end. They were normally taught straight to the test and the teachers were obsessed with making sure you were just ready for one 3-hour block in May. There seemed to be, in most of my AP classes, a severe lack of concern with actually gaining important knowledge. In my AP World History class we obsessed over how to exactly format essays so as to please the college board, but I felt we never really got real appreciation for the subject. If I was going to high school now, I'd be afraid in a push for college admittance, I would have not taken some classes that I got the most out of, like journalism and marine biology, because they just don't translate the same amount of "difficulty" to others -- and it's rankings like yours that are putting more and more importance on AP tests. I wish that the obsession with rankings would end so as to push away from the lust for AP classes.

Jay Mathews: E-mail me at mathewsj@washpost.com. I want to hear more. I am betting you went to a small private school, or a school in a very affluent neighborhood, that had all the tools anyone would need, and great teachers in every course. You are in that 10 percent slice I talked about, and AP is less relevant to your education, but you are not the reason I created the index. It is for Jaime Escalante's kids in East L.A., and a lot of C students in average schools everywhere.

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Columbia, Md.: Mr. Mathews,
I went to River Hill in Howard County, about which you wrote an article last year lauding its progress in increasing the number of students who took AP tests. In my experience, I passed a fair number of the AP exams I took because I studied on my own. Some, although not all AP classes, were often boring, not challenging, because "C" students taking the classes weren't prepared or just didn't understand what was going on, so the teacher had to answer a lot of questions. It might be a great experience for the teacher, but not so much for students who take a lot of AP classes.

Jay Mathews: E-mail me at the address above and tell me more. I would like to put you into a story. I want to find out in more detail how the C students hurt you in that class.

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Washington, D.C.: Why don't you consider the number of actual college classes that students take (as partnerships with local colleges) in your challenge index?

Jay Mathews: I could all community college tests that resemble AP or IB---at least 2 hours long and with at least some free response questions.

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Arlington, Va.: Jay-

Do you believe H-B Woodlawn "deserves" the number one ranking when so many of its students are clearly blowing off AP tests? How is it possible to assess with any degree of accuracy the true rigor of the Woodlawn academic program if the students are performing so poorly on these tests?

Jay Mathews: This is a reference to my story in today's Arlington-Alexandria extra, where some proctors noted some kids intentionally sleeping during AP tests because it is late in their senior year and they don't need them---more habits of that upper 10 percent. There are more 1s at Woodlawn than one would expect, but there is no way to count the number of blown off tests, the proctors saw very few kids doing this, and when, as I explained in the story, I chopped off the Woodlawn total the most imaginable number of blown off tests, they still came out number one.

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Falls Church, Va.: Another point on the Fairfax County "grade deflation" -- students in AP/IB get an extra 0.5 added to their final grade. Not all schools do this; I know they didn't do this in my high school in N.Y. Thus, other students applying to those selective colleges are getting 4.0 for that "A", not 4.5. Consider yourself lucky!

Jay Mathews: Exactly.

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Baltimore, Md.: It would be very nice if there could be some mention about special education students who make the grades. It is very disheartening when tests are mentioned statistically, and special education students rank very low or not at all. There should be a test or some type of process to map their improvements/successes with the educational system. I also think the schools with the highest percentages for achieving the successes should be mentioned and ranked to give parents a choice when choosing schools for their children.

Jay Mathews: Keep in mind, I don't report test scores in the index, just test participation, and lots of special ed students can take AP or IB courses and tests and get great benefits from them.

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Minneapolis, Minn.: I totally agree with your premise on the AP question...When I was in high school, I took the AP Calculus exam along with 20 of my classmates. Those of us who took BC scored 4s and 5s...those who took AB scored 2s and 3s. I think one of the reasons why is that the AB kids thought they'd do okay, because our class was based around that. But us BC kids were just terrified of that test that we studied our tuckuses off. We were not a wealthy school district by any means, but our district paid for the exams for all seniors (juniors had to pay their own way). I NEVER would have become a chemical engineer if I didn't get that Calc BC rigor in H.S. -- I never would have had the confidence.

. Jay Mathews: Thanks for that great story. AP and IB are motivators. We don't have enough of those for most kids in high school these days.

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Montgomery County, Md.: You always mention IB and AP classes as college level classes. From what I understand, IB classes are to prepare high school students for college (so they are still high school level classes), but AP classes are college level classes for high school students in U.S. When you place those two as same level classes, do you say our college level classes are too low, or the international high school classes are at our first year college levels?

Jay Mathews: Both prepare students at the level of introductory college courses, and the data shows that students who do well in AP or IB will skip that intro course in college and do well in the second year course. AP is directly designed to mimic the college intro course, but IB courses, whose exams are a bit more difficult, do just as well, if not better.

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Washington, D.C.: Recent admissions office worker again -- not to worry, highly selective schools recalculate GPAs based on their own scale. They unweight and reweight classes equally. They are also surprisingly aware of schools where every student does very well.

Jay Mathews: More truth from someone who knows. Thanks.

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Arlington, Va.: Whether they should or not, people look at the challenge index and think one school is better than another. However, how can one say H-B Woodlawn is better than Yorktown with the passing rates of the exams that you mention in your article? Does it seem to you that schools are making people take the tests just so they are rated higher? Wouldn't adding a component of the scores on the test make the rating more fair?

Jay Mathews: Adding a score component would reward the vast majority of schools nationally that don't let their C students take the tests. There are fewer and fewer such schools in this area. They are probably a minority now, and I may make an adjustment some year. As for the ranking, I plead guilty. here is my mea culpa from my FAQ:
7. But aren't all the schools on the list doing very well with AP or IB? So why rank them and make some feel badly that they are on the lower end of the scale?

That is exactly right. Every school on the list is in the top four percent of American high schools based on this measure. They have all shown exceptional AP and IB strength. I am mildly ashamed of my reason for ranking, but I do it anyway. I want people to pay attention to this issue, because I think it is vitally important for the improvement of American high schools. Like most journalists, I learned long ago that we are tribal primates with a deep commitment to pecking orders. We cannot resist looking at ranked lists. It doesn't matter what it is---SUVs, ice cream stores, football teams, fertilizer dispensers. We want to see who is on top and who is not. So I rank to get attention, nothing more, in hopes people will then argue about the list and in the process think about the issues it raises.

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Bowie, Md.: Jay, this ranking is interesting. But why not note the schools based on teachers who are dedicated to academic excellence and teaching and students who come to school eager to learn? The ranking doesn't show this. And interesting academic programs get lost in the numbers. If you look at Bowie High School, you rank it around the 0.5 range. But at Bowie H.S. there's a new program called SUMMIT. It's a very competitive four-year program that gets bright kids into advanced classwork and A.P. courses so that by the time they graduate, they are qualified to do well in at least six A.P. exams.

Jay Mathews: If they do well in those AP courses, or just take the tests, their challenge index number will grow. I would love to know of a way to measure the faculty qualities you cite. Tell me how to do it.

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Virginia: I don't understand the complaint about "grade deflation" in Fairfax County. They are using the same grading scale they have been using for at least 20 years, when I started in FCPS as a first-grader. Does the writer think this grading scale is new? What does he think is being deflated?

I had to laugh when I read that. I spent two years at a FCPS high school, where you could sleep through a class all year (even GT or AP) and still get an A. Grade deflation???

Jay Mathews: Grades will always be with us. I may have to do a inflation deflation story if I keep getting these interesting messages.

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Washington D.C.: If a student in AP program has a GPA of 3.5, how is it translated in an IB GPA number? Thanks.

Jay Mathews: Some districts, like Fairfax, give an extra grade point, or half a point, if you are in an AP or IB class. It varies with each district.

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Washington, D.C.: Has the College Board talked to you about your analyses?

Jay Mathews: Many times, and I have spoken at College Board conferences. The AP teachers that write to me or stop me are very high on the index, since it helps their parents see how much good work they are doing. The College Board officials like the index, and my writing on AP, but hate my frequent snipes at the SAT.

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Arlington, Va.: I went to a magnet school in Philadelphia, and I took the biology AP class and test (which I got a 4 on). The teacher bragged to us about how his class is so difficult that he regularly fails students who pass the AP test. It was certainly true. I got a D most of the year, which hurt my college chances, and as it was my senior year, colleges never saw that I earned a 4 on the exam. On the other hand, someone at another school with a easier teacher might have looked good for taking an "AP class" and earning an A or a B but gotten a 3 in the end. Isn't this kind of thing a problem with AP classes and why SATs should still have a role in admissions?

Jay Mathews: Your teacher went overboard, obviously. There are fortunately not many who use that method of motivation. The problem is not with AP, but with grading, and its many excesses. The AP test grades are done very carefully, with lots of input from many independent people, thank goodness.

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New York, N.Y.: If I may respond to the comment on AP test "blow offs" at H-B Woodlawn:
Regardless of how many 1's students received on AP tests, or even how many tests students took at the school last year, the proof of H-B's academic rigor can be found in the proverbial pudding: the vast majority of every class that graduates goes on to college, and often to the most prestigious and rigorous colleges and universities in the country. I believe that H-B sported a 100% acceptance rate to UVA for many years, not an easy feat even for a school "in state." If that's not enough evidence, I'm not sure what is.

Jay Mathews: Very true. The fact that they have the chutzpah to blow off tests like that also says something. The Woodlawn teachers don't appear to be worried.

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Washington, D.C.: Earlier this week, the Post reported the results of an international study comparing achievements in math, science and reading. U.S. students were among the bottom in OECD, and the countries (Finland, Hong Kong, Korea) on top seemed to have school systems where everyone learns the same thing. Their schools might thus fare poorly in your study. Do you agree?

washingtonpost.com: In a Global Test of Math Skills, U.S. Students Behind the Curve (Post, Dec. 7, 2004)

Jay Mathews: On the contrary, what distinguishes those countries is often a very difficult national exam one needs to pass to get into college, something like AP or IB that measures course content, not a math and vocabulary and reading test like the SAT.

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Bowie, Md.: Having seen what I have seen of the public school system through the eyes teenager in a public high school in Prince George's County, there is no way I would ever send her two sisters to another public school in the same county. That said, how do you rate parochial schools?

Jay Mathews: You see the indexes for some at the end of my list. I guess with some exceptions, again look at the Prince George's schools that do well on the index list, I would also be reluctant to send my kid to most Prince George's high schools. But you have to look at each school. Visit the one in your neighborhood, talk to other parents and talk to the principal. That will give you a clue.

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Washington, D.C.: To the person from Oakton -- How is it that a school has a "good reputation" that
1. Is a very large school
2. Whose teachers don't have time to teach their children
3. Whose teachers don't have me to communicate to the parents - that their son/daughter may not be doing well and
4. Whose counselors and administrators are clueless.
It always amazes me that people say Fairfax schools have a "good reputation" and when you scratch the surface the facts say otherwise. The schools are just too big.

Jay Mathews: They may be too big, but I have visited many high schools throughout the country, and on quality of faculty, quality of courses, and quality of students, you cannot do better than Fairfax in any public system.

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Silver Spring, Md.: On the reduced/subsidized lunch program: are we supposed to believe that even 1% (albeit a very small number) of kids at Whitman are on the reduced lunch program? 2% for Langeley? I know Bethesda is expensive to live in, but I don't see any affordable housing anywhere in the school district, do you? What parent would subject their child to getting teased about "free lunch" when their kid is one of, what, two kids on the program?

Jay Mathews: Good question. I would love to find that family and ask them.

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Vienna, Va.: Everyone I have ever talked with who has a degree in education has said that education courses have not helped them teach. Why don't districts get smart and hire teachers who have a degree in and a love for the discipline they are to teach, instead of requiring teachers to take these boiler-plate education courses?

Jay Mathews: Because although the ed schools do not teach classroom management well, even the brightest scholar needs those skills to do well in a real school. Many groups are now experimenting with ways to get those bright prospects a good dose of handling kids, mostly through mentoring. I hope they work.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Jay, A couple of years ago I did a research project using your data and I remember you did Challenge Index scores for a few private schools in the D.C. area. As far as I can tell you haven't done that since then, though; will they return in future years?

Jay Mathews: Not unless the private schools, led by the National Association of Independent Schools, lift their ban on giving me their data.

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Greenbelt, Md.: I live in Greenbelt where there is a high tech high school called Eleanor Roosevelt High School. There the kids are so wild and undisciplined; it's no wonder they do badly. Even crime in Greenbelt is so bad, you can get mugged just walking to your car. That's why our real estate has not done so well as other counties. No one wants to move to Prince George's County, including Greenbelt, because of the bad schools and the crime associated with the kids.

Jay Mathews: Tell me more. You are describing what is, by far, the best school in Prince George's, with terrific teachers and great AP courses. Yours is a school I WOULD send my kids. Send me more details at mathewsj@washpost.com. Perhaps your information has a bad source. It happens.

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Reston, Va.: My local elementary school, Terraset, is discussing implementing an IB program. Can you explain what this means at the elementary school level?

Jay Mathews: That is the Primary Years Program. I know very little about it. It is very much into project learning, very into John Dewey. some parents like that. Since it is a Fairfax school, you can count on it being well run and well taught. My book on IB, out next spring, just looks at the high school program, so I cannot claim to be an expert on PYP.

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Rockville, Md.: I'm a tutor in Montgomery county and am pretty familiar with the best schools in the area. I live in the RM district and I know it is not the best school in Montgomery County. I realize that this ranking is not meant to say that one school is better than another overall, but don't you think that's how most people are reading it (regardless of the introduction)? To me, it makes your ranking a dangerous thing.

Essentially, who really cares about the 'challenge index'? It's not measuring the challenge to a single student or a student body because either students will take APs/IBs or they won't. Once they're in the courses, the ranking doesn't matter to them individually and if they're not in the courses, the ranking still doesn't matter. I really don't see a purpose to it. Don't you think it would be much more useful to rank area schools by what courses they offer, how good their teachers are, grades (if you were able to baseline them so the comparison would be real), etc? I know it's dangerous to say that my school is better than your school (we all know how flawed the US News rankings are) but at least it would be a somewhat useful tool.

Jay Mathews: The purpose is to encourage the vast majority of schools that deny students a change to take AP to change that policy and open up the courses. RM is so good now, compared to most American schools, that it no longer needs much of a boost, having both AP and IB.
But tell me what ARE the best schools in Montgomery County, and why, and I will add you to our Back Fence survey, which is trying to do exactly what you suggest. mathewsj@washpost.com

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Arlington, Va.: Just a reminder - HB Woodlawn is NOT a high school, it's a program.

Jay Mathews: Yeah, yeah. but that is Arlington speak. It is a high school, and a middle school, and very good.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Jay: Add me to the list of parents who think that the Challenge Index, with all its faults, is a good thing. One of the difficulties of test scores of any kind to rank schools is that they can become self-fulfilling. Kids who go to high-poverty, lower-scoring schools start believing they're not as smart as other kids (I've been fighting that in my own kids for years). The Challenge Index, by not including passing rates, gets around that nicely. It's been a pleasure to watch my kids' schools (specifically, Wheaton High School) respond to the expectation for more AP participation.

The weak link now is middle school preparation. Do you know anything about the effectiveness of the pre-AP curriculum for middle schools (particularly in science and social studies)?

Jay Mathews: Oh boy. Good question. I have to finish a story today, so I am going to make this, reluctantly, my last answer. Middle schools really need help. It would be nice, for starters, if they set a goal of every kid mastering algebra by the end of 8th grade. That is why the book I want to write now is about the KIPP schools, the best middle schools in America, that are transforming inner city education, and have lessons to teach us suburbanites. If any of you have some good ideas about what to do about middle schools, please let me know. And thank you for another very interesting afternoon, in which I learned much more than you did. ---Jay

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