Look out! Jay Mathews, the intrepid education reporter for the Washington Post*, is doing to the rest of you what he does to the Washington area on a regular basis. Newsweek’s cover article this week promises to reveal the best high schools in America. It’s a very empty promise.
The story is entirely based on Mathews “challenge” index, an incredibly narrow measure of school quality, which ranks schools based on a ratio of the number of students who take AP or IB classes to the number of graduates. For example, 500 students enrolled in AP classes in a school where 400 students are in this year’s graduating class would give you a “challenge” score of 1.25 (which wouldn’t land you in the top 100).
Missing from the equation, of course, is that all the simplistic math does not take into account how many students actually passed the end-of-course test that go with the classes. Nor does the rankings take into account any other factor that goes into making a good school. By definition the list would exclude an excellent vocational school that concentrates on training students. However, just for good measure, Mathews throws the percentage of students on free or reduced lunch into the table but not into the formula.
Mathews is a big proponent of schools challenging students to study at higher academic levels – and that’s excellent. The AP and IB programs are two ways to do that, but not the only way and not the best way for every student. Pushing the concept that just taking the exams is enough to judge the quality of a school, while disregarding whether the students actually learned anything, is absurd. A little like judging the success of a diet plan by the number of people who are participating – and not weighing anyone at the end.
* Just for the record, the Post company owns Newsweek.