Dear Extra Credit:
I feel I really had to weigh in on the recent columns on Richard Montgomery High School. I had two sons graduate from RM, one in 1999 and the other in 2003. It is my firm belief, based on their reports and my own involvement with many RM students as a youth sports coach, that RM's exalted reputation is due strictly to the school's International Baccalaureate program. Your ranking may be high because of all the honors and AP courses taken, as you point out, but that doesn't quite tell the whole story as to why so many of the non-IB kids take these courses.
My youngest son is a perfect example of this. He is, to put it most generously, not a scholar, and yet, year after year after his freshman year, he voluntarily signed up for a full course load of honors and AP courses. My wife and I, understanding that his thirst for knowledge was somewhat limited, but also concerned because of his heavy involvement in school and youth league sports, suggested each term that he might find it easier to balance his school and extracurricular activities by taking more "on-level" courses. On-level courses are admittedly easier, less demanding variants of many of the AP and honors courses, but they are perfectly fine for most students, and frankly, more suited to his academic interests.
His response was enlightening. According to him, and other kids I talked to, the on-level classes are populated by the "straight out of Compton" crowd, mostly black and Hispanic students from the Veirs Mill side of the RM cluster. Now my son didn't have anything personal against these students. The problem was, and this says a lot coming from him, you couldn't learn anything in these classes -- there was zero interest from the students, little discipline from the teachers, and the f-word was the constant coin of communication. Even he didn't want to sit through that for seven hours a day. So he put himself through the AP grind; it wasn't fun for him, or for us, but he felt it was the only viable route for him.
RM is not a bad school. There are many, many great kids there and teachers who go to great lengths to help any student who needs it. And you can get a very decent education there, even in the on-level classes. But, let's face it, it's not Walt Whitman or Wootton. I know it's not the politically correct thing to say and you rarely, if ever, hear this brought up for fear of public censure, but there is a large minority of students at the school for whom RM is just a day-care center until they can hit the sports field or streets after 2:30. And it's their attitude and behavior in the classroom that drive many students out of the perfectly adequate on-level classes into the AP and honors curriculum. It makes the stats and rankings look good, but it's not the whole story.
You have just described the reason that I came up with the Challenge Index -- a measure of a high school's participation in college-level course tests. If you ask the neighbors in any American town what they think of their local high school, they invariably give the highest marks to the school that has the highest percentage of affluent students with educated parents, like Churchill or Whitman. The fewer such students, and the more minority kids from low-income families, the lower the neighbors rate the school.
I can't do anything about that. That is the way many people think about schools. My point is, those neighbors, and the experts who sometimes buy into the same analysis by using average SAT scores, are not really measuring how good the school is but how good the students are.
Educators cannot do anything about the kind of students who walk through their doors, but they can do something about how well those students are prepared for college. And that is what the Challenge Index measures. As I showed in the Sept. 15 column, even the non-IB students at RM are taking college-level tests at higher rates than 99 percent of the other high schools in the country. That means, at least by this measure, that is a very good school.
Your concerns about those on-level courses you mention remain, but how would your son have liked to attend any of the vast majority of the schools that do not allow a student who is "not a scholar" out of those on-level courses, even if the student is eager to try AP or IB? If you look closely at many Montgomery County schools, you will find not only middle-class kids but many students from the poorer parts of town leaving those on-level courses and opting for something more challenging.
You and your sons have, of course, no time to sample life in schools in other parts of the country, but if you did, I think you would be very surprised.