Dear Extra Credit Readers:

Many of you contribute to listserve discussions sponsored by Montgomery County Parent Teacher Associations and other interested groups. I am beginning the new school year with a comment from the Richard Montgomery High School listserve, sent to me by the parent who wrote it. Readers should feel free to send me their own listserve comments or exchanges, if they think they would interest a wider circle of readers.

Dear Extra Credit:

Since RM has been voted number 11 in the best schools list, people on the school's listserve are saying how unrelated to reality this is. The number of AP classes that kids take is caused by the demographic of this school: all the IB [International Baccalaureate] kids take all AP classes, plus there are a lot of high-achieving kids from highly educated families, children of highly educated immigrants from China and India, etc. You could move these kids to a high school in Arkansas and they would still take this many AP classes. There's nothing special that RM is doing to deserve this ranking. I would never move to the RM school district on purpose if I had known what this school was really like, which your school rankings completely obscure. Here is a letter that I wrote to the school's listserve in response to this comment [from another parent]: "I find it amazing that the local high school that I was warned about not sending my children to when I bought my house in the RMHS cluster 18 years ago has turned into the best high school in the state and #11 in the nation!"

I am glad that RM has had such a turnaround. I think that people are reacting the way that they are to the school's listing as number 11 in the top 100 high schools for a number of reasons. For most of us, we have sent our children all through MCPS starting in kindergarten, and many of us are not happy with this experience. I personally feel that the curriculum of the elementary and middle schools does not adequately prepare students for the challenges of RM. I have had to spend a lot of time and money for years supplementing my children's educations in the areas of grammar, vocabulary, spelling, mathematics, science, history and geography so that they would be ready when they finally made it to Richard Montgomery. All the while that I have been doing this, I have had to put up with the puffery coming from MCPS about how wonderful the schools are. I think that they are pretty good at the high school level, but not so hot below this level and many people agree with me. This is why, when we are told "more good news" we react in a negative fashion.

A second reason is that RM does have some real problems that inclusion in such a list would lead you to believe do not exist. I believe that the principal has stated that one-sixth of the ninth-graders have grades so low that they cannot play sports. This lessens to about one student in 12 as they spend more years in RM, but this is still a lot of students. Also, our family has had personal experience with a teacher who was incompetent to teach the material, resulting in a class full of confused and frustrated students.

So, to some extent, RM being included as No. 11 in a list of the top 100 schools seems to be more puffery to many of us. We are adults, and it seems as if our intelligence is not being respected when there is so much self-congratulation and not so much reality. Lots of kids taking AP classes is great, but this is more a result of the school's demographic than anything else. This needs to be balanced with other facts about the school to get a true picture of our situation.

Isadora Paymer


Richard Montgomery High School parent

For the benefit of readers who are unfamiliar with the ranking you refer to, it is Newsweek magazine's list of "America's Best High Schools" based on the Challenge Index, a measure of high school participation in college-level tests that I developed eight years ago. I rank all the Washington area high schools this way every December in the Post's Extra sections. Newsweek ranks the top public high schools in the country every two years or so, the most recent ranking appearing in its May 16 issue.

Richard Montgomery did rank No. 11 in the country. Your points are well-made. All schools in Montgomery County, including RM, still have their flaws. No human enterprise is perfect. But the point of the list is to help parents, students and teachers see which high schools are doing a good job in preparing students for college and which are not, and as usual I invite anyone interested in this subject to show me a better way to measure this than the Challenge Index.

Richard Montgomery gave a total of 2,047 Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate tests in May 2004, by my count. It had 407 graduating seniors. I divide the first number by the second and calculated its ratio on the index as 5.0294. So on average, there are about five college level tests given at the school for every graduating senior.

You say this is mostly because of the school's demographics, but the facts do not support your view. More than 99 percent of American public high schools that are as affluent as RM, or more affluent, rank far below it on this list. Most high schools, particularly the most affluent, do not let their average students take AP or IB courses or tests. They think of these courses as rewards for good grades in previous grades, not as useful learning experiences for all motivated students. The people who run RM and all the other Montgomery County high schools have a different view. They have seen the research that shows that average students benefit greatly from taking AP or IB and so welcome them into those courses.

RM does have the benefit of having 400 students specially selected for its IB magnet, and those students also take many AP tests. But hundreds of non-magnet students also take them. This year, there were 815 AP test-takers at the school. Even if all of the magnet students were among them, and that was not the case, that would leave 415 non-magnet students taking AP courses and most of them passing the tests.

Just counting those non-magnet students and their AP participation would still put RM far ahead of the vast majority of American high schools on this scale. I congratulate you on your keen attention to the school's continued need for improvement, but I think its teachers, parents and students deserve to celebrate what is, in the context of the real world of American education, a remarkable achievement.