A Decade of the Challenge Index: Send Me Your School and Your Opinion

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 24, 2008; 5:54 AM

The Challenge Index, my device for assessing high schools on college-level course participation, was born 10 years ago this month in The Post and Newsweek. At the beginning it was mostly a way to draw attention to a book I had written, "Class Struggle: What's Wrong (and Right) with America's Best Public High Schools." I feared that my prose was far too stuck in the minutiae of classroom life to win much of an audience but hoped that a list of schools ranked in a new way might tweak some curiosity.

In May, Newsweek will again publish its annual Top High Schools list, using the Challenge Index rating method, just as The Post published its annual Challenge Index list of D.C. area schools in December. These lists have taken on a life of their own. Newsweek's Top High Schools was the most visited feature on the Newsweek.com Web site last year. The Post's local list is also popular, and both are targets of controversy, producing by far the most questions and comments coming to my e-mail boxes.

Is this good? I would like you to tell me. These past 10 years I have been quoting regularly from the lists' most acidic critics, as well as their warmest friends. But the arguments on both sides have grown stale and predictable. I have a new idea for advancing the debate.

First, I would like to ask all high schools that have strong Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or Cambridge programs and have NOT gotten the Newsweek list entry form to e-mail highschools@newsweek.com right away and request one. If you gave at least as many AP, IB or Cambridge exams last May as you had graduating seniors last year, you should qualify for the Newsweek list. We gather all of our information for the list directly from the qualifying high schools. We have sent out thousands of forms, but we don't want to miss anybody. If you know of a high school that you think has been overlooked, please forward this column to the principal. I figure the more schools on the list, the more varied and interesting the opinions of the list.

Second, I would like all readers of this column who have had some firsthand contact with the effects of the Challenge Index in an actual high school to send me at mathewsj@washpost.com your view of this way of assessing high school quality. I want to quote your observations in future columns. The more real-life stories I get, the better.

Whether you like the Challenge Index or not, I hope you can put aside your favorite theories about it and instead focus on how it has affected, or not affected, for good or ill, teaching and learning in your school. I love data. I love anecdotes. Give me what you've got. I heard much speculation about the index in its early years and produced much of it myself. But after 10 years, I am hoping we have some interesting and useful facts to share.

For those of you new to this argument, most criticism of the index focuses on its simplicity. Each school is rated and ranked by the ratio of just two numbers: the number of college-level exams given at the school to all students in all grades divided by the number of graduating seniors. Critics say it is absurd to judge a school by just two numbers. They say the list also encourages schools to assign every student to college-level classes without any thought to whether such courses are good for them, and produces classes full of students who struggle and fail the exams, possibly ruining their records and college chances.

Supporters of the index say those fears are groundless. American high school students cannot be forced to take a college-level course against their will. Instead, they say, the Newsweek list gives recognition and political cover to principals and teachers who have been fighting apathy and racial and class bias in an effort to expose more students to challenging assignments in reading, analyzing and writing. They say the Challenge Index exposes the many schools that are denying college-bound students a chance to prepare for college, and helps even students who struggle in the difficult courses to build their academic muscles.

I will need to attach your name and the name of the school to whatever you tell me, but the people you are describing can be anonymous. I hope to prepare a good collection of observations on all sides that we would post on both washingtonpost.com and Newsweek.com.

I realized long ago that whatever the lists' benefits or drawbacks, they were a terrific way for me to connect with educators, students and parents. I have learned a great deal from what you have told me so far. Please don't stop now.

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