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How Would You Fix The Index?

In a comment to my previous rant about his “challenge” index, Jay Mathews asked for my thoughts on his modification to his annual ranking of high schools.

Specifically he’s interested in where the cut off point should fall to define a separate list of schools with low passing rates on AP/IB tests, which he currently has set at 10%.

Ok. I appreciate Mathews taking the time to leave the comment and I’m not shy about sharing my opinion. So, here goes.

Assuming that I accept the basic premise of the index (which I don’t), ten percent seems very low for the passing rate on a testing program that’s supposed to mirror college level work.

I wouldn’t put any school on the list that had less than a 50% passing rate.

For that matter, why not incorporate the passing rate into the number in the first place? Maybe multiply the original ration by the passing rate, although I have no idea whether that would produce a meaningful statistic.

I doubt it would, however, since, as I said, I don’t buy the basic concept of the index.

Judging the quality of a high school based on how many students take one specific group of tests completely ignores hundreds of other important factors.

It also reinforces the idea that all students should be going to college immediately following high school. We need to offer kids more options that better fit their needs, interests, and skills, rather than our traditional sequencing for American education.

Even worse is the way that Mathews’ employer, the Post Company, uses the ranking. In past years, for example, their magazine Newsweek has trumpeted it on their cover under a heading like “The Best US High Schools”.

Finally, I really can’t accept this statement in Mathews’ comment: “Except for math and foreign language, all that you need to be qualified for AP are an ability to read and write and a desire to work hard”.

Most AP teachers (and I was one) will tell you students need more than that – if we expect them to be successful in the class and if we expect more than 10% of them to earn a passing grade.

The bottom line to all this is that we certainly need to be educating students at levels beyond the basics, the ones usually defined by the NCLB standardized tests.

However, there are more (and better) ways to do that than anchoring everything to the curriculum defined by the AP program.

And there are much better ways to judge the quality of a high school education than an index based solely on the number of kids who take their tests.

Incidentally, if you have some thoughts on the matter, read Mathews’ reasoning for changes in his index and email him your ideas. After all, I could be wrong. :-)


  1. Jay S.

    I work at one of the schools that benefits from Newsweek’s use of Mathews’ “Challenge” index – ranking in the top 100 schools. However, like you, I feel that his ratings paint a very distorted picture of what is actually occurring in the school. Even though all of our 11th and 12th graders take a minimum of one AP test (English), many taking two, few students actually achieve a passing score – a majority coming from native language speakers taking the AP French, Spanish, or Chinese exams (we only had Spanish classes last year).

    While there are positive things coming out of my school, when their are no requirements for students to take AP classes, it not only skews Mathews’ rankings, but also dilutes the value of AP courses. (With that said, many universities are no longer accepting a passing score of three on an AP test for college credit.)

    I would love to see a ranking that looks at the work that dedicated teachers put in to developing engaging curriculum, rigorous and relevant assignments and assessments, and the long hours of additional tutoring and mentoring of students. Too often it is thought that teachers are only looking for recognition in the form of monetary gains, when I think most would appreciate the recognition of the administration and the District that we are doing all that we can to help our students be successful.

  2. ~Tim

    For what it’s worth, I don’t think you’re wrong.

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