When the Post company sold Newsweek for a buck last year, I was hoping it was the last we’d see of their annual cover story proclaiming the “best” high schools in the US based, a statistical exercise based on Jay Mathews’ “challenge” index. And that I could drop this as a topic to rant about.
Unfortunately, that was wishful thinking as I found the 2011 edition of this incredibly simplistic and misleading list stuck in the middle of my Sunday paper. For those who don’t get the Post, here’s the web version.
Other than the fact that the Post has rebranded the package since inheriting it from Newsweek, now calling it The High School Challenge, nothing here is new.
As always, the index is based on a simple ratio of the number of AP (and other college-level programs) tests taken to the number of graduating seniors and Mathews’ still believes this is a mechanism to improve high schools, by guilting them into challenging their students (which means pushing more kids into AP classes).
Doesn’t matter if the students are prepared or if such courses are appropriate for their needs. And how they score on the tests certainly doesn’t matter, only that they were taken.
Beyond the shaky conceptual and mathematical foundation for the index, is how the listing is interpreted. Although Mathews’ says he doesn’t intend this to be a measure of school quality, that is exactly how readers interpret it.
The simple numbers will be splashed uncritically across local papers and school web sites, ignoring the many other factors that go into a making a good high school experience.
And, in order to boost their numbers next year, even more schools will narrow the educational options of their students to only those prescribed by the AP people at the College Board.
However, one thing is different this year: Mathews finally has someone in the Post organization who is willing to challenge the validity of his index.
It would just be nice if Strauss’ pushback was given even half the exposure of Mathews’ high profile sloppy love letter to the AP program.