Challenge Index

Jay Mathews
Washington Post Education Writer
Tuesday, December 12, 2006; 11:00 AM

Washington Post education writer Jay Mathews was online Tuesday, Dec. 12, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss his Challenge Index rankings of area high schools.

A transcript follows.

In his latest Class Struggle column, Mathews looks at how low-income high schools in the D.C. area are doing.


Jay Mathews: Hi. Welcome to our annual exploration of challenge in the Washington area schools. This is a controversial topic, and I appreciate any and all argumentative or even openly hostile questions. The full ranked list of 184 schools will be published Thursday in the Post's Extra sections, but is already available at


D.C.: A majority of your Montgomery (Western) County high schools are higher on your challenge index compared to Fairfax County, but Fairfax County has a higher overall index. What does that tell a parent who's deciding between moving to Western Montgomery County or Fairfax?

Jay Mathews: Whoa. A fresh question right off the bat. I don't get too many new questions anymore, so this is fun, and I have to think for a moment. The western Montgomery County schools, as you know, tend to be more affluent, and affluence does affect school's ratings, although less than other ways of rating high schools. One stellar indication of that is that even Montgomery County's least affluent schools rank in the top 5 percent of all U.S. schools, far above many schools around the country and this region that are more affluent than they are. This is because Montgomery is a very smart district where all the schools are encouraging nearly all kids to give AP and IB courses a try, and get that taste of college trauma that will make it easier to adjust when they actually get to college.

If you compared Fairfax County's most affluent schools to Montgomery County's most affluent schools, they are all in about the same place on the list. Notice for instance Langley of Fairfax, with 1 percent low-income kids, is number 10 and Whitman of Montgomery, with 2 percent low-income kids, is number 11. So it is not going to make that much difference which of America's two most challenging large school districts you pick. But I would favor Fairfax because it has more schools with IB, which is even better than the great AP program, and because it requires all students in AP to take the AP tests, and pays the test fees. I don't think students should have the option to avoid the tests, which are a key part of the AP experience.


Greenbelt, Md.: I am at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Prince Georges county, which is the highest placed PG school, No. 40, all the other PG schools are way down the list. My friends go to other PG schools and they tell me how awful it is. I am lucky to be in the science and technology program here. To what do you attribute the failure of Prince Georges county schools?

Jay Mathews: There are actually two factors explaining why PG does so poorly on the list. One of them, high poverty rates, is hard to change. The second, barriers to AP and IB participation, is much easier to fix, and PG is beginning to do just that. This year the county's overall Challenge Index rating jumped 34.9 percent, as many principals did what Fairfax County does -- pay the AP test fees and require all AP students to take the tests. And next year it will get even better, I predict, because the new superintendent, John Deasy, is a big fan of AP and IB and plans to strengthen those programs and improve access for all students. Dr. Deasy will be on our education hour show on Washington Post radio, 1500 AM, this afternoon between 1:10 and 1:55 p.m..

School districts with lots of low-income students, like PG, have to focus on finding better teachers and better principals, and look for ways to give those principals a chance to pick and choose their teachers and do everything necessary to raise achievement. I would argue that the county could do with some charter schools also. But that is a big problem, poverty, for which I have no easy solutions.

Plenty of low-income schools do very well on the Challenge Index, however, because all that takes is a decision to let even low-income kids take the courses and the tests. They may struggle, but if given enough time and encouragement, they can do very well, and the schools will look much better on our list.


Silver Spring, Md.: How much of an emphasis should be placed on passing rates of standardized exams? Do you see a correlation in that the schools that have a higher passing rate of standardized exams typically have a high Challenge Index showing also?

Jay Mathews: Good question. Passing rates on standardized exams correlate closely with parental income. The more affluent the school, the higher the passing rate on any exam you can name -- SAT, SOL, MSA. This is also true to an extent with AP and IB, but the difference is that the AP and IB classes are teaching to a test in a very intimate way. The test is the unabashed goal of the course, which is fine because these are the best tests we have for high schools, full of free response questions that require critical thinking and analysis.

Because the Challenge Index measures test participation, NOT test scores, its ratings do not correlate so closely to parental income. I think this is good, because it gives all schools a chance to shine if they will just let more kids take the courses and the tests. But the ultimate goal is for those students to learn more, and so test results are important. At this stage, though, it is more important to get more kids in the courses and taking the test, since most American high schools tell most of their average students that they will not be allowed to take AP or IB. In essence they are saying, we know you are going to go to college. We can't stop you from doing that, but we can stop you from taking a course and a test that will prepare you for college. It is an insane policy, but it is the rule in most schools. Fortunately, in the Washington area, most of our schools have come to realize how idiotic that is, and have opened up AP and IB to anyone who wants to work hard.


Bowie, Md.: Have you ever thought of the approach where kids want to take AP classes and learn the AP material but don't care to take or pass the exam because when they get to college, they want to remain with their class within their major?

If a kid takes 10 AP classes and qualifies for credit in all those classes, then he could start college as a sophomore and be stuck between a rock and a hard place because in no way is an AP class as rigorous as a college class, and most true college sophomores already have that college seasoning and maturity that the sophomore wannabe does not have.

Jay Mathews: Two things to consider. One, just because you have taken 10 AP courses and tests does not REQUIRE you to get the college credit and skip to the next level of that subject in all 10 areas in college. Many students take AP tests in subjects they don't plan to take at all in college, and some like to take the AP course and test, and then do the college intro course also so they will be in great shape to do well in it. Most students want to enjoy the full four years of college, and take AP and IB just to get ready, not to get credit.

Second, you have accepted the conventional wisdom, at least among college professors, that "in no way is an AP class as rigorous as a college class." This may be true (although there is almost no research on the matter) in very selective colleges with very high levels of student preparation. But it is almost assuredly not true for the average state college intro course. I have talked to a lot of college professors and college students, and it is pretty clear that in many cases, probably most, the AP or IB version is more challenging, better taught, and has a better exam, with more free response questions, than the equivalent introductory college course. If you see any data that indicates I am wrong, let me know. That would be a good story for The Post.


Baltimore: If people are moving to a certain county just because of the Challenge Index, they are crazy. People, you are going to move based on how many kids take AP classes? How about looking at the quality of the classes themselves, how well students are prepared for SATs, and a zillion other factors? The Challenge Index is in many people's opinions a tiny measure of a large, large world. Don't base your educational decisions on it!

Jay Mathews: I sense that you have not visited many high schools, or spoken to many high school teachers in your life. I have been visiting schools and talking to teachers for 24 years, and I have to disagree with you. If you have some data and interview results to back up your view, please send them to me. I will write a column about them.

But I have no doubts, having collected all this information, that the Challenge Index is the best quantitative measure we have of high schools. My challenge to all who disagree is: tell me what is better, and why. High SAT scores at a school are the result of the school having a lot of affluent parents. Quality of courses is of course important, but there is no way an average parent with a job and other responsibilities can sit in the classes of several schools for days at a time and decide which schools have the higher quality courses.

The Challenge Index, on the other hand, although very narrow and simple, does give parents important clues about which schools are most likely to let their kids into their best courses, which without a doubt in almost all schools are the IB and AP courses. If the school has AP courses, but won't let your child take them, what good is that? Also, AP and IB are the courses in which you can most easily measure quality, because the students are taking exams written and graded by outside experts, and the teacher's cannot dumb down the course without getting caught.


D.C.: Can you enlighten me on the difference between an AP vs. IB program? I know the IB program is based on an international type of teaching methodology, but do IB courses cover science and math like AP? How is IB more rigorous than AP? When I was in HS, only AP was offered.

Jay Mathews: I have a book out about IB, "Supertest," which gives you the important comparisons in great detail. But in short, AP and IB are both terrific programs, the best courses available in high schools, but IB is a bit better, in my view, because students usually cannot avoid taking the exams, as they often can in AP, and because the IB exams are longer (5 hours compared to 3 hours) and richer (IB exams usually have no multiple choice questions.) Also, if you go for the IB diploma, which requires passing six of these exams, you are also required to do community service, take a theory of knowledge course and write a 4,000 word essay on a research topic of your choice. AP has none of these good features, and the extended essay, as it is called, often turns out to be the most important academic experience IB students say they had in high school.

Both AP and IB, by the way, are equally impressive to colleges. If you take three AP tests or three IB tests, you are in equally good shape to apply to any selective school.


Baltimore again: Uh, I teach biology (AP!) at a challenging high school.

Jay Mathews: Take a look around, then, at other schools, and put yourself in the place of a parent having to make a choice. What method of discerning which schools are best would be better, and as practical, as looking at the index? I can't think of anything, but if you can, let me know, either in his chat or in a e-mail to me. The only alternative is to ask the neighbors, and they will usually steer you to the school with the fewest low income students. If that is yr measure of quality, say so, and we can then have a very rich discussion.


D.C.: When you have a ranking, obviously one has to be on top, while the others are on the bottom. Can you safely say that you can pretty much not go wrong with any high school in NoVa or Western Montgomery County, even though one school has a slightly higher challenge index and equity in excellence percentage? Would you say anything above a ranking of 35 would be considered excellent?

Jay Mathews: Absolutely. You have stated my view very well. Actually, any school that has a rating of 1.000, and that means the top 128 on this list, are pretty good -- in the top 5 percent of all US high schools.


College Park, Md.: I've noticed that you no longer give a sampling of private schools' indices for comparison. Why is this? Do you think that the Challenge Index would be a fair way of comparing private schools as well (both to public schools and to one another)?

Jay Mathews: I do, but I ran out of space for private schools because of the growth in the number of public schools, and got tired of complaining that so many private schools will not give me their data. E-mail me if you want to know which private schools are good on this measure. Usually, the private school's rating will be similar to the average rating of public schools with similar demographics. But there are exceptions. Saint Anselm's Abbey in NE D.C. has one of the highest ratings in the country, far above most private schools I know. And there are some low-income public schools to do much better than some high-income private schools.


Fairfax: To the person trying to draw conclusions comparing Western Montgomery County to Fairfax County: The comparison is complicated by each district having a magnet school, Blair and Jefferson respectively, that are not counted in the rankings. These schools draw students who would otherwise greatly boost the Challenge Index scores of their home schools. (My senior at Jefferson, for example, has taken 6 AP classes and 3 post-AP classes, including this year's.) Jefferson is a much larger magnet program, so it removes from the count many more high performing students in Fairfax County than Blair does from Montgomery County. The bottom line is that it's better to evaluate specific high schools when choosing a neighborhood for your next home than to look at averages. There are too many confounding factors to draw sound conclusions.

Jay Mathews: Good general advice, but based on misunderstanding of how those schools affect the rating. Each Fairfax school on average sends only about 25 juniors and seniors to TJ, and their absence would not affect the rating much. Fairfax's overall rating without TJ is 2.700 and with TJ would be 2.878. And Blair IS on the list. TJ is the only local public school we exclude, because the list is designed to show which schools do best challenging average students, and TJ has none.


D.C.: SEED school is the only charter school in D.C. to be ranked (79 is pretty good). Is this the school's first year in the rankings? Where other charter high schools considered? What can other charter schools do to gain an edge? Are there rankings for the elementary and junior high/middle schools in D.C.?

Jay Mathews: There are many other D.C. charters on the list. SEED is on the list for the first time, but Math Science Tech has been on for several years. Keep in mind that like most low-income D.C. schools starting AP, SEED had only 2 percent of its tests graded as passing at a level that could earn college credit. But they are giving kids the course and the test, and so have a chance to get better.


Rockville, Md.: I find the griping in this area about the quality of schooling to be very bizarre. Many people in my community are up in arms because half of the kids go to Gaithersburg High and the other half go to Richard Montgomery. But they are both excellent schools, at least compared to some of our near neighbors (PG, Frederick, even most Howard County schools). While I understand wanting the best school for your kids at some point it is like choosing between two almost equal colleges, say Carnegie Mellon or MIT. At what point do people realize the minutest improvement at the high school level won't be that big a help on the next level!

Jay Mathews: Eventually, when you get to be my age, this truth reveals itself, but it takes awhile. We are a very competitive culture, and we love to celebrate winning games by inches.


D.C.: Do you think a Challenge Index needs to be established for elementary or middle schools? Reason is that preparation at these grade levels allow kids today to take on the "Challenge" that they encounter in high school.

I for one took algebra in the seventh grade, but for many, they don't take algebra until high school because it wasn't offered to them in the lower grades. Therefore, how can one expect to take calculus if they're just starting at algebra in the 10th grade?

Jay Mathews: Excellent point. You and I think alike. We could measure middle schools by what percentage of eighth graders have completed algebra I. I did that for D.C.-area schools four years ago, and ranked the districts, and may do it again. Elementary school is different. Those kids take tests, but the result just shows parental income, not school quality, in the way the Challenge Index does. Any ideas?


Washington, D.C.: Having a dispute with the husband. I say we should send our (yet unborn) children to D.C. schools for elementary and high school (but am willing to yield on private school for junior high). He says private all the way. I believe rather strongly that one of the best ways to improve our schools is to have an increasing number of middle-class parents who have the time and other resources to be involved in the school and fight for their child (and by extension other children in the school whose parents don't have the time to do so). Moreover I refuse to send my children to an all-white school, when we purposely live in a very racially diverse neighborhood. What say you?

Jay Mathews: I am on your side, but you have to pick your schools carefully. You could send your child to any of the west-of-the-park elementary schools, and either Hardy or Deal junior highs, and to Wilson or Walls or Bell or Banneker, and your child would be getting just as good an education as she could get at Sidwell, or suburban schools. And there are in Southeast and NW Washington the three KIPP middle schools, the best in the city, but they would prefer NOT to take middle-class kids, because they don't need KIPP.


Richmond, Va.: Jay,

What percentage of kids enrolled in AP courses nationally actually take the exam?

Jay Mathews: It is about 75 to 80 percent, last time I looked.


Baltimore: Jay,

I graduated from the IB program at Mount Vernon in 1998. Having been through the rigors of the program made college much easier than some of my peers. More important than the credits is the freedom to take other courses. I came in with 40+ college credits. Some people suggested to retake some of the courses to get "the college experience." However, the best advice was from an advisor who said to take the credits and run with it. This allowed me to explore other courses I would not have had a chance to take. Trust me, IB/AP calculus is much better in HS than college calculus, where those courses tend to be large weed-out classes anyway.

Jay Mathews: This is a very helpful e-mail, and buttresses what I have heard from many AP and IB students now in college.


Arlington, Va.: Please advise D.C. that living close to work is more important than the small differences between Fairfax and Montgomery County schools. Not spending 3-4 hours every day on a killer commute, and being able to get home in time to be part of your children's life will have more impact on their future than any class.

Jay Mathews: Hear, hear.


Arlington, Va.: There's a huge difference in the Challenge Index between Arlington/Falls Church vs. Fairfax. How can that be explained?

When deciding on a county to move to, besides the Challenge Index, what are other important factors?

Jay Mathews: Huge? Oh, I see. Falls Church and Arlington are about 4.000 and Fairfax is 2.700. Please keep in mind that this is like comparing the Chicago Bears to the San Diego Chargers. These districts are all in the AP and IB stratosphere. FallsCchurch is high because it is one small school with very affluent parents, and a great IB program. Arlington has fewer affluent parents, and four terrific schools. Fairfax has 24 schools, and it is hard to keep up such a high average with that many, but they are WAY ahead of nearly every other large district. I would not make a choice between those districts on this measure.


D.C.: Here's a paradox: With greater income, you expect better schools and higher performing students, but also with greater income, that usually means less time spent with kids and going over homework. How do you explain that?

Jay Mathews: I have seen no research that backs that up. Note that the research does show that middle-class kids arrive in kindergarten better prepared because their parents have spoken and read to them far more often on average than low-income parents.


Centreville, Va.: Regarding Blair and TJ, can I infer from your answer that while TJ has no average students Blair on the other hand does and hence is included on the list?

Jay Mathews: It sure does. Visit the place sometime. It has this swell new building, and some great magnet programs, but the school is 26 percent low-income and most of the students are no different in background than most U.S. teens.


Fairfax County: Sorry in advance for the long post.

I like the index to a certain extent because it encourages AP participation, but the key your readers have to remember is that AP US History is not exactly like US History 101 at Random State University. In some ways it's more difficult and in some ways it's easier.

It's more difficult in the sense that you are requiring students to write on a level that they may not be accustomed to because they haven't had as much practice doing it as a college freshmen would have had. I teach AP World History to sophomores. At the beginning of the year, their writing is generally horrendous since they haven't never had to develop the analytical writing skills expected of a college student because they're only in 10th grade. As a result we have to do more intense writing practice than would occur had these students taken the class one, two, or three years later and already learned the skills. You don't see this occurring in intro college survey classes because it is assumed by that point the students already have that skill down pat. As a result, it feels harder to them because we are in essence teaching them how to ride the bike, not watching them after they have been doing it successfully for a few years as a college professor would.

On the other hand there is a bit more ease than if they were dumped into a college classroom taking World History 101 because we provide quite a bit more hand holding than most college professors ever would. Part of it is the nature of high school. I am required by the school board to have at least one graded assessment per week and the recommendation is two per week. How many intro college history courses would provide 32 graded assessments for the semester to balance out that awful midterm grade you earned? We also have significantly more class time (i.e. mandated student contact time) than a college student would have with his professor (In two weeks I see my students for about 470 minutes; in two weeks the average college course would meet for about 300 minutes). As a result, there is less independent study and more guided study. I think these are the biggest reasons why students should take AP classes. It isn't the GPA bump or the name recognition; it's the idea that the students can go through the college level course with someone/something there to hold them up in case they end up founder. I'd rather have them make their mistakes and learn from them here than go to college, make mistakes, and have no support system to break their fall.

Jay Mathews: Very smart and helpful. Thanks. how do the exams differ?


Fairfax, Va.: I wonder about the expense involved in AP/IB testing. There seems to be a push to get kids to take these tests and a good number seem to get scores of 2 and below. Are taxpayers picking up the tab or are the tests gratis for public schools? At $80 per test, that seems something worth considering.

Jay Mathews: $83, and in Fairfax County and most of No. Va., taxpayers are paying for that, and it is probably the single most effective $83 in taxes they will ever spend. I dare you to come up with something that has more meaning for more kids' educations.


Fairfax, Va.: Now that you've factored in AP/IB participation and passing rate of 3 or above to your Challenge Index, how do you also factor in passing of standardized tests that will be or is part of the high school graduation requirements for these schools?

Jay Mathews: Interesting idea. I will think about, but one virtue of the list is its simplicity. I wouldn't want to change that.


Montgomery Village, Md.: Based on your article today, it appears that you count the number of AP/IB exams taken by students even if the school pays for them.

I think that this is a change from your previous methodology since I recall that a year or two ago you noted that you had dropped Lower Merion High School (in suburban Philadelphia -- it was my high school) from your rankings even though it had done well in previous years because it paid its students' test fees.

Can you explain your sudden change of heart on this subject? Was this done just to make area schools look better?

Jay Mathews: You were misinformed. I have always encouraged schools to pay the fees. I believe Lower Merion dropped its AP program, or at least reduced the number of tests, for its own reasons. They did not make sense to me at the time, but I cant remember what they were.


D.C.: Was it a typo that James Madison in Fairfax was omitted from your list?

Jay Mathews: No, it was Jay being stupid. I put in Edison twice, and should have caught it. Smart readers set me straight and I think we finally fixed it. Madison is number 20.


Silver Spring, Md.: Thank you for doing this! Keep yelling that if we educate all kids as if they were gifted kids, we will be much surprised by the results; and we will be much better off as a nation.

Jay Mathews: Thank you in return. It is nice to have a few soulmates.


Greenbelt, Md.: Jay, it's fine to rank the public schools yet what numbers do you have for any private schools? How do schools like: Sidwell Friends, St. Anselm's Abbey and DeMatha stack up vs. the public schools?

Jay Mathews: This is a rough guess. Sidwell is about 3.00, Saint Anselm's about 7.00 and DeMatha, which takes a lot of low income kids, about 0.700, maybe. DeMatha's great principal Dan McMahon doesn't like the list, and we have debated this in the paper.


Fairfax County: I work at a school in the top 50 on the Challenge Index. We have just below 40 percent Free/Reduced lunch. We have large ESOL and Special Ed populations. We made AYP last year. Clearly, we are doing good things at our school. Yet, we are constantly compared to other schools in our county, usually on the "losing" end. Our principal asked yesterday how we can use the Challenge Index to our advantage. The problem is that many parents and other community members do not understand the statistics around AYP, AP, demographics, etc. Do you have any suggestions on how to advertise our successes, and how to use data like the Challenge Index to boost our reputation?

Jay Mathews: Go to, pull off several of my recent AP and IB columns, and have the PTA distribute them, and post them in the local supermarket. You are in the top 2 percent of U.S. schools. Walk down the streets with a bullhorn and yell that.


Cleveland: In all of the lists based on the Challenge Index ranking, such as the Newsweek rankings, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology is not included. However, in the explanations of the ranking system, it simply states that the ranking is based on the number of APs taken and the number of graduating seniors. By this criteria alone, TJ would be in the top five school, yet it is not in the top 1,000. What other criteria, which is never mentioned, is keeping it off these lists?

Jay Mathews: Go to the bottom of our latest list on, or look at the public elites list in Newsweek, and we explain that we don't include magnet schools like TJ with average math and reading SAT scores above 1300, because they have few or no average students to be challenged.


Jay Mathews: Thanks very much for the great questions. Now I am off to the radio show to get beaten up by critics.


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