By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 22, 2007 9:14 AM
By the late 1990s, California voters and the University of California regents had banned admission preferences for minorities in the UC system, and several members of the faculty at the University of California-San Diego were not happy about it. Scholars like Cecil Lytle, Bud Mehan and Peter Gourevitch thought public universities had been created to break down the old barriers of race, privilege and class and give the state's most disadvantaged students the life-changing advantages of a higher education. What could they do?
It seemed obvious to them. If the university was not allowed to admit low-income students who could not compete academically with advantaged middle class applicants, then the only alternative was to create public schools that would give those low-income and minority students the encouragement, good teaching and extra time they needed to make them just as ready for college as students from the better neighborhoods.
The professors began to talk about setting up just such a school on campus, and in 1999 the Preuss School UCSD was born. It is the only public school in America that admits only the children of low-income parents who have not graduated from college and requires all of those students to take several Advanced Placement courses before they can get their diplomas.
This week Newsweek is publishing its latest list of America's Best High Schools, based on a rating system called the Challenge Index I invented a decade ago. It ranks public high schools based on students' level of participation in AP, International Baccalaureate and Cambridge tests, since those programs are the best quantitative measure of a school's commitment to challenging every student and making high school more than just a credentialing and sorting exercise. The index started as my hobby and will likely remain so until I die, since it gives me an excuse to chat with educators all over the country about exciting new initiatives in public education like Preuss.
Preuss (rhymes with choice) is a 6th through 12th grade school. It took several years, building from the lower grades, to produce a full-size graduating class, one of the Challenge Index requirements, so this is the first time it has appeared on the Newsweek list. It debuts at No. 9 in the country, one of the highest first appearances ever. The new list ranks every school that gave at least as many college level tests in 2006 as it had graduating seniors, a total of 1,259 schools, or about 5 percent of the nation's 27,000 public high schools.
Since all Preuss students must take at least six AP exams, it is no surprise that the school did so well on this list. But given the students' backgrounds, the achievement of the vision of those disgruntled UCSD professors, and Doris Alvarez, the star principal hired to run the school, is still remarkable. It is an iron rule of education that low-income students invariably score poorly on average on standardized tests. Preuss is the only school on the list where every single student is classified low-income, and yet it is also one of the few schools in which every graduating student has gotten at least one passing grade on one AP test.
There are many other surprising schools on the list this year. Morrisville-Eaton Middle/High School in rural Morrisville, N.Y., had only 84 graduating seniors in 2006, but it gave 102 AP tests, including U.S. history, chemistry, English literature, calculus, U.S. government and politics, and physics. The 33-year-old principal, Jon Bryant, said he decided to give his students more of a challenge after asking colleges three years ago why some of the school's honor students were not being admitted. "The answer was simple," he said. "We needed to add courses that would show that our students were prepared to thrive in college, not just survive. . . . I have made a commitment to high academic rigor and will continue that throughout my career."
That is good news to many educators, including researchers at ACT Inc. who just issued a report, "Rigor at Risk," that reveals what most college professors have long known -- high school courses, even those labeled "honors" or "college prep," often demand little critical thinking or analysis, and yield good grades on the high school transcript for very little work. AP, IB and Cambridge courses, on the other hand, are not just college prep, but college courses. Students can earn college credit if they score high enough on the exams. And since the exams are written and graded by outside experts to match college standards, there is no way to dumb down the teaching of the course without being caught, as long as every student takes the exam.
Several other AP and IB principals and teachers who, like Bryant, decided to set a high standards and stick with it, even with low-income students, are profiled in one of the articles accompanying the Newsweek list. They include Chris Barbic at YES Prep in Houston; Doris Jackson at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Va.; Al Penna at Binghamton High School in Binghamton, N.Y.; and Roy Sunada at Marshall Fundamental High School in Pasadena, Calif.
They are among the many AP and IB educators who have shared with me the intriguing surprises that come from telling teenagers they will have to study and think hard in their classes, and give them the extra time and encouragement needed to get that done. I want to include one more AP teacher, not mentioned in the Newsweek piece, who posted a reflection on slacker students recently that I think everyone should read. Insisting on rigor is difficult, said Cathy Cross, an AP chemistry teacher at Sherwood High School in Montgomery County, Md., who is certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. But even when you think students are tuning you out, something altogether different may be happening.
This is what Cross said in a message to colleagues:
I'd like to share my personal experience with 4 unmotivated students that I taught in AP Chemistry three years ago. "Sleepy" was on new medication and tried to put his head down every day; "Grumpy" blamed all his problems on his old chemistry teacher and on me; "Sweetie" ate lunch with me but rarely did her homework and didn't take the class seriously; "Angry" threw rubber stoppers and tried to burn random things in lab.
All finished the year with low scores on the AP test and poor second semester grades.
Why have them in there at all? Well, the main reason in 2004 was that I didn't get to pre-select students. But knowing what I know now, I would welcome them all into my AP Chemistry class.
All four former students have stopped by in the last few days to say hi. All have reported earning As and Bs in freshman chemistry. Sleepy and Grumpy are both in Engineering, one at VA Tech and one at GA Tech. Angry and Sweetie are both in the University of Maryland system.
Angry said he never had to study for Chemistry, unlike his roommates. Sweetie said she learned so much in AP that her Chem class is easy now. All the students reported that they had been unmotivated for one reason or another in my class in 2004. Some had family or medical issues that interfered with their learning, some said they were just lazy.
My main point is that they ALL reported that they learned a ton in AP Chemistry, even though their performance in the class did not indicate such. They told me that their performance in college Chemistry was due to what they learned in AP Chemistry. They shared that their classmates who never had AP Chem in high school were really struggling with the college content and the way it was taught. But for my students, the content had finally "clicked."
There are a million reasons why a student isn't motivated, and another million issues that affect teaching and learning. My four anecdotal stories might not apply to your kids. But it's worth thinking about if you have any say over who takes your class.
Trying to challenge all students in high school, as Preuss and Cross do, happens far less often than it should. But the number of schools and teachers making that their goal is growing, and they ought to be recognized and rewarded.