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.
ILLINOIS: Decatur #61, Gloria J. Davis; Deerfield/Highland Park #113, George V. Fornero; Evanston, Eric Witherspoon; Glenbrook #225, Dave Hales; Lincoln-Way #210, Lawrence A. Wylie; New Trier #203, Linda Yonke; Oak Park and River Forest, Attila J. Weninger.
MASSACHUSETTS: Amherst-Pelham, Jere Hochman; Masconomet, Claire SheffKohn; Wayland, Gary Burton.
A note at the bottom revealed that these ladies and gentlemen were so sensitive to my needs that they had already sent a copy of the letter to Time and U.S. News, telling those Newsweek competitors that our high school list finally had some big-time boycotters.
Except they weren't like that at all. I learned that John Chambers, superintendent of the Byram Hills district in Westchester, along with William Donohue, principal of Byram Hills High School, had drafted the letter and sent it around for signatures. I called Chambers, and as expected, found I was dealing with another public-spirited and kind-hearted school leader.
I told him that I agreed that we were ranking schools based on a narrow criteria, and that high schools are much more than their college-level test participation rates. The Newsweek list ranks every public high school in the country that gave at least as many Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or Cambridge tests the previous year as it had seniors graduating. We rank because no one would pay any attention to the list if we didn't. I consider the Newsweek list an honor roll. Only the top 5 percent of the nation's approximately 27,000 public high schools have AP, IB or Cambridge programs strong enough to make the list.
But despite the narrowness of the measure, I told Chambers, these days I get at least as much praise for the list as I get condemnation, because many superintendents, principals and teachers recognize that college-level test programs can invigorate schools, from the poorest to the richest. Recognition in Newsweek, many educators have told me, helps them to break away from what they consider a short-sighted policy that is still standard in most schools. Most schools forbid average students to take college-level courses and tests, despite evidence that even a student who struggles in such a course is going to be better prepared for college than someone who is not allowed to take the course and the test.
I told Chambers I appreciated the sincerity of his argument, but journalists don't work for his school system, but for readers. There appeared to be many Newsweek subscribers and Web site users in his district and others who wanted to see our list. So, I asked, will you still give us the data if we ask for it? Certainly, Chambers said. It is public information. Just file a Freedom of Information request.
Chambers said that nonetheless he would still like our readers to know about the superintendents' protest. I thought: why not? It would be interesting and instructive for students, parents and voters to know that the leaders of their local school systems had this view. I promised him I would write a column quoting his letter and listing all the signers, and urge Newsweek to have a footnote to the online version of the list, coming out in May, that did the same.
He promised to stay in touch. Sure enough, I received a letter from him a week ago informing me that one of the signers, Edgemont in New York, and its superintendent, Nancy Taddiken, had decided to drop out of his group.
Chambers and I may disagree about the Challenge Index, but how can you do anything but applaud an educator who is so committed to accuracy and good manners? I hope we have more chances to talk in the future.