A Look Behind the Challenge Index

By Jay Mathews
Thursday, June 1, 2006

Dear Extra Credit readers:

Newsweek published its list of "America's Best High Schools" last month, based on a much-maligned ranking system I invented a decade ago. I think it is the most useful quantitative measure of a high school. But e-mails I usually receive ask: Why am I such an idiot? How have I managed to involve publications such as Newsweek and The Post in my outrageous scheme to confuse readers and label schools?

Since the Fairfax County public school district had more high schools (four) among the top 100 than any other school district except Montgomery County (which also had four, after its fifth, Walter Johnson, dropped to 101), and because a new study shows Maryland and Virginia have the highest Advanced Placement test participation rates in the country, I thought I would give readers a short history.

What I call the Challenge Index ranks public schools based on student participation in college-level tests.

I came up with it to draw attention to a book I wrote in 1998, "Class Struggle." The book argued that what we thought were our best public high schools had unacknowledged flaws. I was particularly dismayed by the way most people perceived two high schools where I had spent a great deal of time.

The first was Garfield High School, in a particularly low-income neighborhood of East Los Angeles. From 1982 to 1987, I hung around its huge campus, trying to figure out how a group of dedicated teachers, led by the soon-to-be-famous math teacher Jaime Escalante, had been able to offer Advanced Placement classes to all students who wanted them, and to successfully prepare children of day laborers and seamstresses for college.

The second was Mamaroneck High School in Westchester County, a highly affluent New York City suburb. From 1994 to 1997, I frequented its lively, elongated campus, immersing myself in the dynamics of a well-regarded suburban school much like many of Fairfax County's.

Most Mamaroneck students had parents with college degrees and well-paying jobs and were better prepared for AP than the Garfield students.

Yet Mamaroneck's AP policy was the opposite of Garfield's open door. Mamaroneck students were not allowed to take AP courses if their grades the previous year in the subject had not been good.

Garfield treated AP as a tool to energize the curriculum and give average students a taste of long reading lists and three-hour exams to prepare them for the rigors of college. (Two recent studies found that students with good AP test grades are more likely to graduate from college.)

Mamaroneck treated AP as a reward for students who had gotten good grades and wanted something good on their transcripts. (One Mamaroneck student was so enraged when rejected for an AP test that she studied on her own. She passed.)


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