Correction to This Article
This column incorrectly said in one instance that a motion to publicly report school test scores failed at a town meeting of the H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program in Arlington. As the rest of the column indicated, the motion that failed was to stop reporting the scores publicly.

H-B Woodlawn can't live down its good reputation

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 21, 2010

My annual rankings of high schools were mentioned at a town meeting of the H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program recently. Some students said they didn't like the great reputation I was giving their school.

Woodlawn, an Arlington County public school, is one of the few survivors of the Alternative Schools Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Its founders wanted to rescue schools from inhibiting rules and conventions. There are no bells. Students call teachers by their first names. They create their own courses and can take two scheduled at the same hour. There are no counselors because teachers do that. Most issues, including hiring and scheduling, are decided by vote of the staff members and students.

Despite the many free and easy '60s values, the test-stressed 21st century has affected the small sixth-through-12th-grade campus. Many parents and students like the emphasis on projects and independent study so much that H-B has become highly sought after, with a Hollywood buzz. The producers of the 2004 disaster film "The Day After Tomorrow" turned actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Emmy Rossum into H-B students. Admission to the school is by lottery. But so many affluent families apply that the percentage of low-income students is half the county average.

The ambitious students of H-B embrace the Advanced Placement program. That has endangered the vision some students have for the school. They don't like the fact that it is No. 1 on my annual Challenge Index ranking of all public high schools in the region, based on AP, International Baccalaureate and Cambridge test participation rates. Nationally, H-B ranked 28th last year. To some students, that means more applications from people who want a top-ranked high school and don't care about H-B's traditions of student power and intellectual curiosity.

So, at the school's Sept. 30 town meeting, a group of students moved to "stop reporting AP-testing statistics to sources such as The Washington Post." Why? "Parents will sometimes send kids to HBW due to the test scores and experience a culture clash," the proponents argued, according to the minutes. "This list has hijacked our image."

Some at the meeting did not support the motion: "Colleges know us and love us [due] to the fact that simply being an HBW student was enough to swing a decision to let them in. If we fail to report our scores it is as if we are hiding part of what we do." There were also arguments in favor: "HBW is about creating a creative individual and that is not represented by a number."

H-B is not the only great school that would prefer not to be high on a ranked list. A counselor at a California school trying to stay off my national list told me some staffers were uncomfortable with the families from overseas moving into the district just because of the high school's rank. Others resisted the very idea of ranking.

Nonetheless, at the H-B town meeting the motion to report test scores publicly failed. The school will have to live with popular admiration. Schools often define themselves, without any planning or promotion, based on how eagerly students and teachers apply themselves to learning and teaching. Given our worries about the general state of U.S. education, being known as a place where kids study hard is not the worst thing that can happen.

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