The Index: Why They Are the Best

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 20, 2007; 6:45 PM

NEWSWEEK, May 28, 2007 issue - The Challenge Index list of America's best high schools, this year with a record 1,258 names, began as a tale of just two schools. They were Garfield High School, full of children of Hispanic immigrants in East Los Angeles, and Mamaroneck High School, a much smaller campus serving very affluent families in Westchester County, N.Y. I had written a book about Garfield, and the success of its teachers like Jaime Escalante in giving low-income students the encouragement and extra time they needed to master college-level Advanced Placement courses and tests.

I was finishing a book about Mamaroneck, and was stunned to find it was barring from AP many middle-class students who were much better prepared for those classes than the impoverished students who were welcomed into AP at Garfield. That turns out to be the rule in most U.S. schools -- average students are considered not ready for, or not deserving of, AP, even though many studies show that they need the challenge and that success in AP can lead to success in college.

Nearly everyone I met in New York thought Mamaroneck was a terrific school because its parents were rich and its state scores high, even though its building was in bad shape and its policy of reserving AP only for students with top grades made no sense. Nearly everyone I met in Los Angeles thought Garfield was a terrible school because its parents were poor and its state scores low, even though it was doing much more to prepare average and below-average students for college than any other school I knew. It was like rating restaurants not by the quality of their food, but by the bank accounts of their customers.

I was covering Wall Street for The Washington Post at that time, and not liking the job much. My life was ruled by indexes┬┐the Dow Jones, the Standard & Poor's. I decided to create my own index to measure something I thought was more important --which schools were giving their students the most value. This would help me show why Garfield, in a neighborhood full of auto-body shops and fast-food joints, was at least as good a school as Mamaroneck, in a town of mansions and country clubs.

Test scores, the usual way of rating schools, are in nearly every case a measure of parental wealth and education, not good teaching. Every study shows that if your parents fill their house with books, include you in conversations and take you to plays and museums, you tend to score well on standardized tests even if your school is not the best. So, with the help of some astute AP teachers, I developed a scale called the Challenge Index, which used each school's rate of participation in college-level tests like AP to indicate which schools were the most demanding and supportive of all students. I took the total number of AP tests (later adding International Baccalaureate and Cambridge tests) taken each year and divided by the number of graduating seniors, so that big schools would not have an advantage over small schools. AP, IB and Cambridge were important because they were challenging (students could get college credit for good scores) and incorruptible (outside experts wrote and graded the exams). Just taking the course and the test mattered more than the score because even struggling AP students learned a great deal.

Newsweek ran the list for the first time in its March 30, 1998, issue. Each year that the magazine has published a new list, I have received thousands of e-mails, some complimentary, some angry, some confused. Educators in schools with large numbers of low-income students that, like Garfield, have succeeded in coaxing students into demanding courses say the list has given them recognition they never thought they would get, and fortified their efforts to get more students exercising their academic muscles for college. Many parents say the list has helped them find great schools in otherwise undistinguished places.

Some parents and educators in wealthier neighborhoods, on the other hand, say a list that puts their schools below schools they consider their socioeconomic inferiors simply cannot be valid. Recently two education experts, Andrew Rotherham and Sara Mead of the Education Sector think tank in Washington, D.C., said it was wrong for Newsweek to label "best" schools with high dropout rates and low average test scores like many of the low-income schools on the list. As we note this year, several of the schools on our list did not make adequate yearly progress (AYP) under the No Child Left Behind law, though that, too, is mostly a measure of poverty, plus the failure of some not-so-poor schools to raise the achievement of their most disadvantaged students.

Readers are entitled to their own views of this rating system. The Challenge Index is journalism designed to serve readers, like the Dow Jones averages or baseball slugging percentages -- not scholarship. The adjective "best" always reflects different values. Your best movie may have won the most awards; mine may have sold the most tickets. In this case, I want to recognize those schools with the teachers who add the most value, even in inner-city schools where no one has yet found a way to reduce dropouts or raise test scores significantly. That is a game that, so far, poor schools can't win and rich schools can't lose, reminding me of the days when everyone told me Garfield was a bad school and Mamaroneck a good school, when I knew the truth was very different.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company