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Which high schools do best during disasters such as the pandemic?

Those with the widest use of college-level courses show improved performance even in this crisis

Ryan Yu, a sophomore at Burton High School in San Francisco, takes his Advanced Placement history class online at his home during the coronavirus pandemic. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
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It is hard to exaggerate how bad the last two years have been for American schools. Student performance plummeted, and that’s only counting kids who showed up. Online classes were uncomfortable and frustrating. Parental outrage at our education system surged.

But at some high schools, learning continued at a high level. It will take more research to figure out all of those. I have identified only a few. Perhaps they are just bizarre exceptions. But they suggest that schools committed to deep learning for all students can beat back events even this awful.

Since 1998, I have been collecting data from high schools with unusually widespread student involvement in college-level courses and exams in the Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Cambridge programs. I call it the Challenge Index. The pandemic made it impossible for me to get reliable numbers in 2020, but I have enough data from years just before and after to show which schools had the highest participation rates in the demanding three-to-five-hour AP or IB exams that are key to keeping standards high.

Of the top 10 schools nationally for which I have before-and-after data, eight showed an increase in college-level test participation from spring 2019 before the pandemic to spring 2021, when the harmful effects on schools were lessening but still disruptive.

The 2022 Challenge Index

Those eight high schools include the McAllen, Pharr, San Juan, Frontier and Alamo campuses of the Texas-based IDEA public charter network. There is also the Mesa, Ariz., campus of the BASIS public charter network. Those six schools admit students on the basis of randomized lotteries, yet had three or four times as many seniors passing at least one AP exam as the national average.

The remaining two schools in the top eight whose Challenge Index ratings increased during the pandemic are magnets that admit students on the basis of academic talent. They are Carnegie Vanguard in Houston and Young Women’s Preparatory Academy in Miami.

The magnets get the highest-scoring students. The BASIS charters draw from mostly middle-class families. But the IDEA schools improved their already impressive results despite having mostly impoverished students. Those schools hire ambitious teachers, support their work closely and focus intently on preparing students for AP and IB exams, which are written and graded by independent experts.

There are many schools on my list, including regular neighborhood schools, that showed similar resilience during the pandemic, but their numbers are tiny compared to the multitude of American campuses devastated by what happened. I am not saying high standards are a cure for the damage of pandemics. My only point is that if you look for schools that succeed even in the worst conditions, they tend to demand much from students and help them achieve those goals.

I rate schools on the basis of a simple ratio — the number of AP, IB or Cambridge exams given in the year divided by the number of graduating seniors. Large schools thus have no advantage over small schools. The most common school rating systems emphasize average test results. I don’t do that, because I think scores are more a measure of the affluence of parents than of the quality of the school. To an extent, the list reveals not only how much students know but also shows how much ambitious teaching they have experienced. The two factors are related, but I think the latter is a better measure of school quality. Having many books at home is nice, but not every child enjoys that advantage.

What distinguishes schools on the Challenge Index is not family income but teacher expectations. The schools that do well on the list open AP, IB and Cambridge courses to any who want to take them, and sometimes require that everyone take those courses and tests. Unfortunately, most high schools allow only students with good grades into those programs. They don’t understand that even students who fail the exams learn more than they would in regular courses.

When I started the list 24 years ago, only 1 percent of U.S. high schools had at least half of their juniors and seniors participating in AP, IB or Cambridge programs. Energetic educators have since brought that number up to about 12 percent, a slow but significant gain. You can find my data at jaymathewschallengeindex.com. Rankings from 2019 are on the 2020 list, and rankings from 2021 are on the 2022 list.

The 2020 Challenge Index

Will Robertson, an English teacher at Corbett High School near Portland, Ore., objected strenuously to his school’s 2005 decision to require students to take several AP courses and exams. Corbett was an average rural school. Robertson predicted disaster. He told his innovating principal his students could not handle such demands.

In another memo to the principal three years later, Robertson confessed that his assumptions “were completely false.” He said “after a week of initial grumbling, students began to accept AP for Everyone as the norm. My response to any and all concerns was simply, ‘This is what we do here now.’ I’d forgotten how flexible teenagers can be. They quickly accepted and moved on.” Corbett was in the top one-third of 1 percent of schools on the 2022 list.

If a school insists that all students do difficult work, it changes the atmosphere, particularly during crises like the pandemic. The sudden move to Zoom classes and online learning made learning more difficult, but the goals were so deeply woven into the schools’ cultures that nearly everyone worked to maintain them.

At most schools, the pandemic led to less teaching and learning, particularly among the most disadvantaged children. The fact that some schools with strong cultures succeeded anyway is in many respects trivial. Our schools have to focus not on what might have been but on bringing our kids back to the level where they can be ready for college or the workplace.

But it does no harm to keep in mind that challenging all students and giving them the necessary encouragement and support can make a difference. Students, teachers and parents united by an ambitious curriculum can overcome even a health catastrophe. The more schools like that we have, the better.

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