A Challenge Index Boycott of Sorts

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 14, 2008; 6:06 AM

I received a telephone call two months ago from a high school newspaper reporter in Westchester County, N.Y., asking about a letter she had seen from high schools boycotting the upcoming 2008 Challenge Index rankings of top U.S. high schools in Newsweek. Such letters are rare events. Over the 10 years Newsweek and The Washington Post have used my school rating system, a total of five schools, as best I can remember, have told us they don't want to participate because they don't approve of our method of assessment.

I wished we had more such letters. They usually lead to what are, at least for me, interesting and productive discussions of what makes a good high school, the obligations of journalists to readers, the perils of ranking and intriguing new programs at the boycotting schools. My conversations were usually with the district superintendent, the school principal or the school Advanced Placement coordinator. They are always fine people. Having spent the bulk of my professional life writing about schools, I can certify with confidence that American educators are among the most polite and thoughtful people on the planet, particularly when they are trying to make a point with someone they fear might be hostile.

I am unhappy about how little boycott action the Challenge Index gets compared to the many annual assaults on U.S. News & World Report's "America's Best Colleges" list. I am told by experts there is no such thing as bad publicity, and we would like as much as we can get. But picking a college is a much more angst-ridden and commercially profitable exercise than picking a high school, so I don't expect much.

My caller, the high school journalist, informed me, however, that there were a couple of dozen high schools on the boycott letter she had seen. That was exciting. It took a while for the letter to reach me and the editors of Newsweek, but three weeks ago it arrived. It said:

"The signers of this letter are school superintendents representing a cross section of districts, including some of the finest public schools in the nation. Many of our high schools have received top rankings in your annual edition of 'America's Best High Schools,' as well as in numerous other publications. Others might never appear in such rankings, despite great achievements, because of challenges beyond the reach of your superficial approach to measuring quality.

"Although some of our schools may seem to be the fortunate beneficiaries of your articles, we all believe that all schools, communities -- and your readers -- are poorly served by Newsweek's persistent efforts to use a single statistic, the number of students who sit for AP or IB exams, to rank schools.

"The inventor of this flawed methodology, Jay Mathews, has insisted that it is meaningful because AP or IB participation is the sole available nationwide measure of whether students take a rigorous program of study. He is right that there are few consistent measures of school quality, state-to-state, but that does not justify inappropriate use of the data that is available.

"In reality, it is impossible to know which high schools are 'the best' in the nation. Determining whether different schools do or don't offer a high quality of education requires a look at many different measures, including students' overall academic accomplishments and their subsequent performance in college, and taking into consideration the unique needs of their communities. Students and school communities deserve better than simplistic and misleading school rankings, and that is why the signers of this letter will not respond to your request for our AP or IB test data. We respectfully insist that you omit our schools from your rankings, no matter how well we score, even if you already have our data, or obtain it in some other way."

The letter was endorsed by representatives of 39 small school districts -- often with just one high school each -- in five states. Most were located in affluent suburbs and had excellent reputations in their communities. The district and superintendent names on the letter were:

NEW YORK: Ardsley, Jason Friedman; Bedford, Debra Jackson; Blind Brook-Rye, Ronald D. Valenti; Brewster, Jane Sandbank; Bronxville, David Quattrone; Byram Hills, John Chambers; Chappaqua, David Fleishman; Dobbs Ferry, Debra Kaplan; Edgemont, Nancy Taddiken; Greenburgh/North Castle, Robert Maher; Hewlett-Woodmere, Les Omotani; Katonah-Lewisboro, Robert Roelle; Mamaroneck, Paul Fried; Mt. Pleasant-Cottage School, Norman Freimark; North Shore, Ed Melnick; Ossining, Phyllis Glassman; Rye Neck, Peter Mustich; Scarsdale, Mike McGill; Spackenkill, Lois Colletta; Tuckahoe, Mike Yazurlo; Valhalla, Diane Ramos-Kelly.

NEW JERSEY: Montclair, Frank Alvarez; Montgomery, Sam Stewart; Tenafly, Morton Sherman; Verona, Earl Kim.

CONNECTICUT: Darien, Don Fiftal; Simsbury, Diane Ullman; Stonington, Michael L. McKee; Wilton, Gary Richards.

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