Accepting the Challenge

By Jay Mathews
Friday, June 22, 2007; 6:33 PM

This is a well-argued critique from a scholarly point of view, which is not surprising because Andrew Rotherham and Sara Mead are two of the most talented scholars of public education I know. But I am a journalist, not a scholar, and their argument ignores my prime responsibility: to give readers information that can help them understand their world and make good choices in their lives.

Most of the Newsweek and Post readers who follow our education coverage carefully are parents, not think-tank researchers or college professors or Education Department staffers. They are far less interested in Rotherham's and Mead's concern over which assessment has the most value for policy makers and are far more interested in which schools are best for their kids.

I created the Challenge Index in reaction to the greatly distorted messages I saw parents receiving about the public schools that were available to them. When parents ask their relatives, their neighbors or their real estate agents which are the best schools, they almost always get the same messages. If the school they are looking at has a large number of students from low income families, particularly black and Hispanic students, it is said to be a bad school. If it has a large number of students from high income families, especially white students, it is said to be a good school.

And yet, when I came up with this list in 1998, I had written a book about an allegedly bad school, Garfield High in East Los Angeles, where 85 percent of the students were low-income, and yet had one of the most accessible and challenging Advanced Placement programs I have ever seen.

And I was just finishing a book about an allegedly good school, Mamaroneck High in the suburbs of New York City, where only 15 percent of the students were low income, but which barred many of its brightest and most motivated students from taking the Advanced Placement courses that would help them prepare for college.

As Americans, we are accustomed to measuring schools by average test scores and drop-out rates. Rotherham and Mead want us to continue to use those factors, as well as ethnic achievement gaps, when rating schools. That is fine for scholars but for real people who have to make real decisions about public schools, it is not very helpful. Except in a tiny handful of cases, which I will get to in a moment, the schools with the highest test scores, the narrowest achievement gaps and the lowest drop-out rates are the schools with the wealthiest parents, living in the most expensive communities.

So what are parents to do if they cannot afford to buy a house in Scarsdale or Winnetka or Bethesda or Beverly Hills, where that great wealth creates what Rotherham and Mead tell us are the best schools?

Those parents are stuck. They will instead move into a neighborhood with average or below average housing prices, and have to be content themselves with schools that will have average or below average test scores. Tough luck, say Rotherham and Mead. That is the way the world works.

But in 1998 I realized I had stumbled upon something of great importance happening in some of those average and below average schools that parents might want to know about. Some schools, like Garfield, or Wakefield in south Arlington, or Springbrook in Silver Spring, or Bell Multicultural in the District, or Stuart in Fairfax County, are challenging even their average students in an unusual way and preparing them for college, despite having large numbers of low-income students and, as a consequence, average or below average test scores, and average or above average drop-out rates and larger achievement gaps.

The Challenge Index, in its narrow but easy to understand way, points out which schools are doing that. It not only helps parents find the best places for their children but recognizes the smart and hard-working AP, IB and Cambridge course teachers in those schools who, under the Rotherham-Mead formula, would go unnoticed.

It is still surprising, and depressing, to me that the vast majority of American high schools restrict access to their most challenging courses, when they can see the good things that are happening at schools where AP is open to all and great teachers entice even reluctant students to give college-level learning a try.

As Rotherham and Mead have noted, the schools on the top of the Newsweek list cover the full range of demographics, from the very rich to the very poor. That is exactly the point. Most average and below average high schools follow the conventional wisdom, that AP is only for A students, and don't let B and C students into those courses. But some of those schools that are accessible to parents of average means do care about preparing every child for the brightest possible future. The editors of Newsweek and the Post, who are all journalists and not scholars, think it is our responsibility to help readers find those schools, even if Rotherham and Mead would prefer to keep their existence a secret.

That is the way we define best. It is not the majority view of what the best schools look like, but we think it is the most useful definition of that term for the parents who depend on us for accurate and helpful information. And we do show what portion of students are passing the AP exams with our Equity and Excellence percentage.

Rotherham and Mead attempt to squirm out of their position of trashing all schools with large numbers of low-income students by pointing to three great schools, Preuss in San Diego, YES Prep in Houston and MATCH in Boston, that have large numbers of such students but also good test scores, narrow achievement gaps and low dropout rates. They are worth emulating, but they are very small and very rare, able to serve only an infinitesimal number of the parents who would like their children to attend such places. In the meantime, where are the parents who read Newsweek and the Post to find schools who offer that same challenge in neighborhoods they can afford?

Many parents have told me that the Challenge Index has helped them cut through the confusing chatter they hear at work or the supermarket about where to put their kids. And it has persuaded many schools that once restricted access to their college-level courses to open them up, which is one reason why the Newsweek list, which identifies the best schools in the country on this scale, gets thankfully larger every year.

Jay Mathews is The Post's education columnist.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company