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Challenge Index Page 2 | Challenge Index Chart


Story by Jay Mathews
Illustration by Stefano Vitale

The Washington Post
Sunday, March 22, 1998


Nearly every professional educator will tell you that ranking schools is counterproductive, unscientific, hurtful and wrong. But I am going to do it anyway, not because I believe my system is scientifically infallible, but because I think it provides insight into one of the most significant emerging issues in American education: whether our high schools are working hard enough to challenge and elevate students. Just last month, the results of a new international exam in math and science showed that American 12th-graders ranked close to last among the 21 nations that participated. Those dismal results provoked dismay among educators and politicians and prompted Education Secretary Richard W. Riley to declare, "We need to have higher expectations for our students." I could not agree more. That's why the reporting and analysis that follow focus not on how good area students are – the way others often rate schools – but on how hard each school tries to make each student better.

schools illustraton The importance of challenging students, and the reluctance of many public schools to do so, first attracted my attention in 1986, when a quiet boy with square features and short brown hair named Greg Rusu tried to enroll in an Advanced Placement calculus class at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles. I was working as a reporter in Los Angeles at the time and became interested in his story.

Rusu's salient trait was his stubbornness, a gift from a father who had gotten the family out of Romania by going on a hunger strike. Rusu wanted to take calculus, even though he would only be a junior and would first have to survive a summer of trigonometry. His counselor and his computer science teacher advised against it. Such a lethal dose of mathematics, they said, would leave no time for his other courses, ruin his grade point average, kill his chances for a college scholarship and anger his parents. The calculus teacher, Jaime Escalante, later the hero of the film "Stand and Deliver," had a different reaction. He listened to the boy's request while correcting another student's paper. After Rusu was finished, the teacher said, "Yup," and handed him the necessary form. Rusu eventually received the highest possible grade on the AP calculus test and was accepted at a fine engineering school.

schools illustraton A decade later, having visited dozens of other high schools across the country, I am convinced that students like Greg Rusu are still receiving little encouragement from most of their teachers and counselors. As often as not they are shunted off to courses that are too easy and, for many, too boring.

This tendency reveals itself in the way American high schools handle their Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) courses. Both programs administer difficult examinations to students who have completed high school versions of college-level courses, from AP economics to IB social anthropology. A few teachers and schools use the courses and the tests to motivate students who would ordinarily be given much lighter fare. But most educators do not like to push children that hard. The reasons are varied and complex, and illustrate, among other things, I think, the corrosive effect of ill-considered kindness in American schools.

This is, in some respects, a crisis of American democracy. The AP and IB tests were born of supremely elitist motives – to ease the ennui of prep school students and diplomats' children. But teachers at a few inner city schools have hammered this gilded tool into a device for enlivening and deepening the education at schools filled with ill-prepared and unmotivated students. What is puzzling is the failure of many suburban schools to democratize their best courses in the same way.

Some teachers say they fear that students asked to do the hard work these courses require will lose interest altogether and drop out. Some teachers say that parents are likely to protest too many demands, and assume their child will get a bad grade and hurt his or her college chances. Some teachers, already drained by long hours teaching ordinary classes, do not think they have the energy to pull students up to an AP or IB level. Some principals and department heads say they do not have enough teachers willing to be judged by their students' performance on examinations written by national and international organizations over which they have no control.

Many educators argue that AP and IB courses should be reserved for the very best students, who would be annoyed and distracted if there were too many students in class who asked basic questions and struggled with the workload. Too many marginal students in the class, some principals have told me, will reduce the percentage of students passing the AP and IB tests, and tarnish the school's reputation in the eyes of the district superintendent and the best colleges. Some state school boards, including Virginia's, aggravate this misplaced emphasis by ordering schools to report their annual AP and IB pass rates. When more than 90 percent of the students taking such tests receive passing scores, we know two things: (1) conscientious teachers are doing good work, and (2) many students who might struggle with the tests are being discouraged from taking them.

I once thought the reluctance to welcome students into difficult courses was a failing of schools like Garfield in low-income neighborhoods with inadequate resources and teachers who did not expect much. Children at elite public high schools were unlikely, I assumed, to be troubled by low expectations and artificial barriers to doing their best. Then I began to interview educators at places like Darien High in Connecticut and New Trier High in Winnetka, Ill., where the homes of some students' parents are worth more than a typical Garfield parent's lifetime income. I found that many of the best schools had fallen into the bad habits of the worst.

When my family and I moved to Scarsdale, N.Y., in 1992, I discovered that my son could not be admitted to honors English or AP U.S. history at Scarsdale High unless he scored well on a qualifying test. Instead of using its talented teachers to bring as many students as possible into those classes and up to that level, the school decided to treat those courses like the best linen. Only certain guests were good enough for it. At New Trier, I found a culture so wedded to an academic pecking order that students were placed in five different levels of courses based on past scores and teacher recommendations. If a student or her parents objected, they had to sign a statement saying they were acting against professional advice and "assume full responsibility for the consequences of this placement." The grading system was so distorted by status consciousness that students who slept late, missed homework and did only C work in a top-level course received more grade points than students three levels below who worked hard and received a B.

At Mamaroneck High School in Westchester County, N.Y., I met a junior, Kerry Constabile, who was barred from AP U.S. history because her grade point average was not quite high enough. She became so upset that she assigned the course to herself, borrowing homework from her AP friends, reading extra books and eventually passing the test. If she had gone to Wilson High in the District or Wakefield in Arlington or any of a number of less affluent schools with more encouraging faculty, she would have been welcomed into AP. Her problem was that she attended a school that, in some ways, had too good a reputation to risk on her.

The teachers and counselors who oversee all this are kind, thoughtful and otherwise admirable people, with their students' best interests at heart. "If it has not been a good year academically or emotionally, to pressure kids to take the AP test is wrong," said Dale Mills, head of the guidance department at Glen Burnie Senior High in Anne Arundel County.

Otherwise attentive and encouraging parents exacerbate the problem by shrinking from the threat of a bad grade. One teacher told me that even at the Thomas Jefferson High School of Science and Technology in Fairfax, with the highest-scoring students in the area, administrators are afraid to push more students into science projects because some will fail and make their parents unhappy. As a father, I have known that fear, but in fact, because AP and IB test results are not linked to classroom grades, teachers in these advanced courses can mark report cards any way they choose. The student does not have to send the test scores to colleges, although many university admission officers are pleased to see a student try something demanding, even if the results fall short of what the student had hoped.

To provide some way to compare how schools handle this issue, I devised a simple measure, which I have dubbed the Challenge Index. The index makes an effort to show how much a school tries to persuade students to take AP or IB courses and the related tests. AP and IB are the only consistent measures of instructional quality for U.S. high schools, and are alike enough to be interchangeable for the purposes of the index. The Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) is a much less useful alternative because it tests skills learned before most students reach the ninth grade and does not require mastery of any particular high school course.

To create the index for a given group of schools, I calculated the number of AP or IB tests given at each school, then divided by the number of students in the June graduating class, so that big schools would not have an advantage over small ones. Using the graduating class as an indicator of school size tends to level the playing field for schools that draw from low-income neighborhoods with heavy dropout rates, because the strength of each AP or IB program is measured only against the number of students who are committed enough to earn a diploma.

Having derived an index number for each school, I gave each school a rank. Like every other numerical measure of complex human institutions, the index is in some ways narrow and distorted. A school that stumbles one year may recover the next, for instance. Yet I think the exercise illuminates interesting and unexpected differences and exposes some unexamined assumptions. For one thing, in the Washington area, the index reveals that some public high schools are making remarkable efforts to stretch the minds of their students and others are not doing as well as they are equipped to do.

I have left off the list two schools, Jefferson in Fairfax (index 4.879), and Banneker in the District (index 1.305), because, unlike other area schools, they are allowed to select all of their students on the basis of academic merit. Schools like Richard Montgomery in Montgomery County and Eleanor Roosevelt in Prince George's County select some of their students this way. But as long as no more than half of a school's students are admitted by test scores and grades, I decided to put them on the main list.

 Continued on Page 2

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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