Finding the Best High Schools, Part Three: High-Income Blahs

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 27, 2007; 11:16 AM

In many ways, Shawnee Mission East High School and its school system are among the best in the country. The system's test scores are above state and national averages and its teachers have won many awards. Expansion Management magazine ranked the district in the top 17 percent nationally, Superintendent Marjorie P. Kaplan notes on an official Web site, and "the tradition of educational excellence that is the hallmark of Shawnee Mission continues to flourish."

Shawnee Mission East High is in an affluent community with well-educated parents, motivated students and a strong emphasis on going to college. Only 3.5 percent of its families are low-income. Yet until now it has not done well with the two programs experts say are most likely to help students prepare for college: Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate.

In this series of columns, I am exploring issues raised by Newsweek's annual America's Best High Schools list, which rates schools based on AP and IB test participation. (If your school has a strong AP or IB program and has not previously been on the list, send the school's fax number to and we will send you the proper form.) Every year many schools like Shawnee Mission East fail to make that list. The reason is an odd, dysfunctional attitude about college preparation affecting even our wealthiest neighborhoods. It is changing very slowly despite frequent warnings from our best AP and IB teachers.

I have been puzzled by Shawnee Mission East High's failure to make the Newsweek list, which I call the Challenge Index, since Newsweek first published it as an excerpt of my book "Class Struggle: What's Wrong (and Right) about America's Best Public High Schools" in 1998. Any public high school that manages to give at least as many AP or IB tests as it has graduating seniors is placed on the list, except for about two dozen magnet schools whose admissions criteria are too restrictive to qualify. Shawnee Mission East gave every sign of matching the other schools on that first list. It had many AP courses. Every student who wanted to take AP was apparently allowed to do so. Its families were focused on college. I was mystified when the data showed its index rating, the ratio of tests to graduating seniors, was far below the 1.000 level that qualified for the list.

Here is what I said about the school in the book: "Shawnee Mission East High School of Shawnee Mission, Kan., ranked even further down the scale -- 160 AP tests and 402 graduating seniors in 1996 for an index of 0.398. The school did not bar any students who wanted to take its AP courses, but it did not expend much energy encouraging them to take the test. Counselor Chris O'Neill estimated that less than half of the students in AP American history took the test in 1997. Principal Angelo Cocolis said that the school's students still score at the top on standardized tests, but research indicates that that is more a measure of their family backgrounds than the quality of the curriculum. A school that shies away from AP tests, based on classroom learning rather than standardized norms, seems to me to be reluctant to challenge its best students and its best teachers."

I left Shawnee Mission East alone after that. I heard the school was getting better. It added an IB program, which I assumed would be a big improvement because IB, unlike AP, usually requires students to take its independently written and scored exams. The IB exams are to many educators beautiful things -- five-hour exercises in analytical writing and critical thinking, usually with no multiple-choice questions.

Then a few weeks ago I received a package from a Shawnee Mission parent who had taken the trouble to collect the latest data on Shawnee Mission East High. Her numbers, which I subsequently verified, showed the high school had improved markedly on the Challenge Index, from 0.398 in 1996 to 0.815 in 2006. In 2006 it had given 249 AP tests and 116 IB tests and had 448 graduating seniors.

That jump in test participation was impressive, but I still did not understand why such a well-motivated and affluent community could not reach the modest standard of the Newsweek list. It doesn't take much for such schools to reach an index rating of 1.000. If only half of their juniors and seniors take just one AP or IB test each of their last two years of high school, their school is on the list. Shawnee Mission East had many more students than that going to college, so what was the problem?

The parent, who declined to be named because she still has children in the school system, explained it to me. Although the AP program was large and open to all students, few took the tests. In 2006, only 36 percent of students in the average Shawnee Mission East AP course took a three-hour AP exam. That is about half the national average for a program where the exams, in 35 different subjects, are used by the best AP teachers to motivate students and give them a sense of what a thoughtful college exam, so different from the SAT or the ACT, is like.

Why didn't the new IB program fill the void? Because, the parent said, unlike many IB schools, Shawnee Mission East only let its top students take IB courses and tests. She sent me a copy of the IB student handbook for Shawnee Mission East. It said incoming ninth-graders must have received a score in the 85th percentile or above on a nationally standardized test and had no grades lower than a B in eighth grade core subjects to qualify for the program.

AP and IB executives urge schools to relax or drop such restrictions. "Our rhetoric strongly promotes 'open access' and that seems to be the trend," said Paul Campbell, head of outreach for IB North America, although Shawnee Mission East has been slow to get his message. The percentage of open enrollment AP courses has been going up, but is still only 48.4 percent, according to AP executive director Trevor Packer. Such restrictive entrance requirements are a principal reason, I think, why only 5 percent of U.S. public high schools qualify for the Newsweek list.

Leigh Anne Neal, spokeswoman for the Shawnee Mission school district, said many students in AP had the choice of taking the AP test or a test in a comparable community college course that would guarantee them credit in any public university or college in Kansas. Many chose the community college tests, which in my experience are less demanding and less respected by selective college admissions officers than AP and IB. A recent Texas study indicated that AP students do better in college than students who have taken community college courses in high school. The high AP test passing rates by the Shawnee Mission East students who took the AP tests buttress the local parent's view that many students who do not feel well-prepared avoid the AP exams, even though they are the people most in need of a taste of college exam trauma.

Schools like Shawnee Mission East do not see the AP courses and tests as the AP teachers I know see them -- as engaging and exciting academic experiences that can enliven high school for nearly all students and make sure everyone gets to tackle a college-sized reading list with the support of a small and friendly high school class before they have to face the real thing in a lecture hall with 300 other college students. Most high schools still treat AP as if it were nothing more than an impressive credential to add to the resumes and college applications of top students. This produces a lethargy, a case of the academic blahs, in the rest of the student body. Without knowing it, high school officials in these cases are saying to average students: "We know you are going to college. We can't stop you from going to college. But we can and will keep you from taking courses and tests that will prepare you for college."

That attitude, finally, is changing at Shawnee Mission East High. Neal said a new principal, Susan Swift, has a new policy that AP students cannot get the AP designation on their transcripts unless they take the AP test. The next step, I hope, is for her to follow the lead of several Washington area schools and deny the extra grade point weight that comes with AP if the student does not take the exam. Neal said the restrictions on IB admission were also removed this year. The school has ordered 322 AP tests and 270 IB tests and seems likely to make the Newsweek list for the first time next year.

It has taken awhile, but this has proved to be a slow process for many schools. Only a few affluent high schools have opened their AP and IB courses much in the last 10 years. I often get emails from their educators, parents and students praising the results, but most schools in America still cling to the old mindset. Getting into a challenging course should not be a reward for good grades, but the prerogative of any student who wants to work hard. Great AP and IB teachers tell me they are ready to take students of every kind to new level, if given a chance.

Next week: Finding the Best High Schools, Part Four: Research Mysteries.

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