Patrick Welsh, who teaches English at a high school just up the road from here, and Jay Mathews, an education writer for the Post, debate* the merits of schools pushing almost every student to take AP classes and the wisdom of ranking schools based on how many do.

Mathews, who has never taught AP classes (or any other as far as I can tell), is a huge fan of both the AP program and of AP for everyone. His main point seems to be that students who take the classes, regardless of how they perform, will benefit from the experience. That’s the whole foundation of Jay’s "challenge" index, which ranks schools on the basis of how many students take AP classes without consideration for how they score on the end of course tests.

Welsh, on the other hand, is a 30+ year veteran of the classroom, including many years teaching AP English. He counters that it does matter how well a student achieves at what is supposed to be college-level work. Patrick notes that the grading standards for some of the most popular AP courses are so low that "any reasonably bright kid can walk in off the street and get a score of 3 [out of 5]".

In this exchange I have to side with Welsh, especially with some of his closing remarks.

I have to say I’m a bit nonplussed that someone [referring to Mathews] who has written such wise advice to students on college selection has such a blind spot when it comes to high school courses.

There are likewise roads to success in high school other than AP courses. Your desire to see kids challenged is noble, but your methods have backfired. But since I can’t convince you to change, I can only hope that parents who want to see their kids truly challenged will convince public school officials to start using common sense and ignore the challenge index.

I would have put less eloquently: Mathews’ challenge index is crap. The measure of a school’s academic success cannot be only about the attempt; it must also be about the results.

* Unfortunately at the time I wrote this, the Post’s link to the article only leads to the title. Hopefully they will add the rest soon.