Every year my fantastic Post colleague Jay Mathews takes a great deal of time to assemble his list of America’s Most Challenging High Schools, and he’s just done it again for his 2014 list, which you can read all about here. And just about every year, I write something about why I find the list troubling.
Jay’s list is famous around the country, so important in the minds of many school administrators that they push into AP courses kids who don’t have the foundational academic background and then force them to take the AP tests. Some schools even require students who take AP courses to take the AP test, and I’ve heard of schools that will downgrade on a student’s transcript a course from AP to honors if that student fails to take the AP test. Jay’s index is for the high school crowd what the U.S. News & World Report annual rankings are for colleges.
Here’s how Jay describes his methodology:
America’s Most Challenging High Schools ranks schools through an index formula that’s a simple ratio: the number of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Advanced International Certificate of Education tests given at a school each year, divided by the number of seniors who graduated that year. A ratio of 1.000 means the school had as many tests as graduates.
What’s wrong with this? Where to begin?
I’m not a fan of judging a school on any single academic metric that involves standardized tests. There are too many problems with standardized tests — how they are constructed, the baggage students bring into the testing room from their regular lives, etc. — to make any serious decisions based on their score of a single test.
What’s more, there are numerous ways schools can and do challenge their students to push themselves academically that don’t involve any of the programs that Jay uses. Some of America’s leading private and public schools have ditched the AP program because many of the courses were deemed by teachers to be too superficial, racing through a mountain of material in a short span of time. Teachers have replaced the AP with their own courses they believe are more thoughtful and rigorous. In a different way, some high schools receive students who come from middle school lacking even basic skills, and it is a huge challenge to teach them the basics. How can we really say what is most challenging?
You may have noticed that one thing that isn’t part of Jay’s methodology is how students actually do on any of the tests he uses in his calculations. Students can flunk them and the school still gets credit in terms of the index. This is the one thing I like — sort of — about the list of challenging tests. Jay is saying that the score is less important than the effort to take it — and that sounds right in the scheme of his list.
Jay has long said he isn’t actually judging the quality of a school (although plenty of people think that is exactly what he is doing) but that his goal is, rather, to challenge high schools to give every student a chance to do college-level work before they get to college. That of course begs the question of whether the courses do, indeed, serve that purpose. A 2013 white paper by Denise Pope and Madeline Levine, both co-founders of Challenge Success, a research-based organization at Stanford University that develops holistic curriculum, conferences and other programs for parents, schools and students, suggests that isn’t always the case. As I wrote in this post — titled “AP program isn’t all it’s cracked up to be — study” — the white paper challenges these four common assumptions:
- The AP program gives students several advantages in terms of college
- The AP program helps to narrow achievement gaps
- AP programs enrich students’ high school experiences
- Schools with AP programs are better than schools without AP programs
The AP program has grown exponentially in the past decade, meaning more high school students are taking at least one AP course. The number of students taking at least one course jumped from 2,099,948 in 2012 to 2,218,578 in 2013, according to the College Board.
If that is so, why do we keep hearing that America’s high schools haven’t made any progress preparing students for college?