Beyond the Challenge Index, A Tale of Great Achievement

By Jay Mathews
Thursday, January 5, 2006

On Dec. 15, the Fairfax Extra published The Post's annual Challenge Index rankings of public high schools in the Washington area. The list also included the new equity and excellence rating invented by the College Board to judge in a different way which schools are doing the most to prepare students for college.

I wasn't sure how this new statistic would work, but one thing it revealed impressed me greatly, and I think it deserves further explanation. That is the statistical weight the new rating gave to the great things that are happening at Annandale High School.

I don't want to slight other Fairfax County high schools by singling out Annandale. All 24 that gave AP or IB tests last May had college-level test participation rates that put them in the top 3 percent of U.S. schools. But Annandale is one of many schools in this region whose reputation has been affected by an influx of low-income minority students, and I think what the new equity and excellence rating reveals requires special mention.

Many Americans have a viscerally negative reaction to schools like Annandale with lots of poor kids who are not white or whose parents came from elsewhere. You may call it racism. You may call it ignorance. But it is rare to find such a school with a good reputation in its neighborhood, even when it has some of the best teachers and strongest courses imaginable.

Annandale, in my opinion, is one of those schools that is much better than its reputation. On the Challenge Index, Annandale has a rating of 1.329, which is the average number of college-level tests it gave last year for each graduating senior. That is high, but because there are so many strong schools in this area, Annandale ranks only 88th on that list of 174 local schools. It doesn't stand out on the list the way I think it should.

Annandale's International Baccalaureate coordinator, Erin McVadon Albright, is one of the most energetic and successful IB educators in the country. When she ran the IB program at George Mason High in Falls Church, more than 80 percent of students, a phenomenal number, took college-level courses and tests. Albright then transferred from George Mason, which has few low-income students, to Annandale, where 39 percent of the student body qualifies for federal lunch subsidies and only 35 percent of the students are non-Hispanic whites. She began to build an IB program from scratch with students who had a lot of distractions in their lives.

I knew Albright was doing good work; the equity and excellence rating revealed just how good. The rating is designed to measure both the level of participation in Advanced Placement tests at each school, which is what the Challenge Index does, and how well its students are doing on the tests. It reports the percentage of all graduating seniors, including the many who never took an AP course or test, who have gotten at least one passing grade on one AP test sometime during their high school career.

Applying the same system to both IB and AP tests, Annandale's equity and excellence rate was 38.1 percent. This surprised me, not just because it was much higher than the national average of 14.1 percent but also because it was much higher than the other schools ranked near it on the Challenge Index list, most of them with rates in the teens or twenties. I counted 44 schools ranked above Annandale on the Challenge Index whose equity and excellence ratings were not as good.

Not only are Albright and the teachers at Annandale getting many more students involved in college-level courses, but they are doing it so well that a larger portion of their students are mastering the material than even at schools with much higher participation rates.

At Annandale, Albright told me, everybody gets into the act -- the IB teachers, the AP teachers and the teachers who have to prepare the students in lower grades for those programs.

They understand that students who have never had a challenging course may act bored or uninterested, when actually they are frightened.

"Being apathetic and being terrified looks the same in an adolescent boy," she said.

Sometimes what would seem to be a simplistic concept in a high-income school has to be carefully explained at Annandale.

"Take inference," Albright said. "Our kids don't necessarily come to school knowing how to do that." But if their teachers take the time to explain, many get it, and their school's equity and excellence rating goes up.

Several other Fairfax schools showed equity and excellence rates better than their Challenge Index rankings, although not with quite as wide a gap as at Annandale.

Edison, at 40.7 percent, was better than 31 schools ranked above it. South Lakes (38.5 percent) was better than 24 schools above it. Lee (39.9 percent) was better than 22 schools above it, and Stuart (44.4 percent) was better than 17 higher-ranked schools.

What I think this shows is that there are a great many teachers in Fairfax County doing exceptional work with students who are usually overlooked, and that is something worth measuring.

Please send your questions, along with your name, e-mail or postal address and telephone number to Extra Credit, The Washington Post, 526 King St., Suite 515, Alexandria, Va. 22314. Or

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company