wasting bandwidth since 1999

New Decade, Same Lame Challenge

Front page of this morning’s Post, above the masthead, in space normally reserved for major, earth shattering events, comes the news…


The 2010 “challenge” index for DC-area schools has been unleashed on the unsuspecting, and largely statistically clueless, public!

The method for computing this highly-publicized ranking of high schools hasn’t changed.

Divide the number of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or other college-level tests a school gave in 2009 by the number of graduating seniors. Tests taken by all students, not just seniors, are counted.

Also not changed is the glorification of the taking of tests, while factoring in nothing about how student actually score on them.

As with the 2009 release, the list includes something called the Equity and Excellence rate, defined as “the percentage of all seniors who have had at least one score on an AP, IB or Cambridge test that would qualify them for college credit”.

Which is also not an entirely accurate number since colleges make their own decisions as to what score on an AP test will earn credit. Or whether the student will get a pass on taking a similar level prerequisite course instead of credit.

So, what exactly is the purpose of the assembling the “challenge” index in the first place?

The rating is not a measure of the overall quality of the school but illuminates the one quantifiable factor that seems to reveal best the level of a high school’s commitment to preparing average students for college. [my emphasis]

The ONE quantifiable factor. Love to see the study supporting that contention, much less the concept that college is the best goal for every student.

While the Post seems to be avoid a “best” tag, it remains to be seen if Newsweek (owned by the Post), when they likely publish the the national version of the index in May, will refrain from billing Mathews’ list as the “nation’s best high schools” as they have in the past.

Ok, I know it’s probably a hopeless cause to continue ranting about this incredibly shallow assessment of high school quality year, after year.

Especially since both politicians and the press seem to be obsessed with reducing everything done in school to simple, headline-friendly numbers, something for which the “challenge” index is tailor made.

However, it would be great if more people would take a critical look at this and other hyper-simple schemes for assessing the complex process of teaching and learning.

By the way, I thought you added the possessive to a name ending in ‘s’ by simply adding an apostrophe. Or am I wrong that the proper punctuation is supposed to be Mathews’ list not Mathews’s list? I’m sure I make plenty of grammatical errors around this place, but I have an excuse. There are no highly trained and paid copy editors around here.


  1. Bellringers

    We had a school district in our area that decided one way to increase their rankings was to funnel as many kids into AP classes as possible regardless of their success rate. All that mattered was the fact that they could show X number of kids taking AP classes so the school district would look good and they could point at those numbers. Never mind that hardly anyone passed the test.

  2. Dave

    I think the Challenge Index is an 80% solution. It’s something — it measures something that probably is at least partially indicative of a positive academic environment. It covers a huge number of schools across the country, and it’s basic, so it’s instantly understandable. It’s an alternative to numbers and indicators published by schools and states themselves, and I think that’s good to have.

    The weaknesses, however, are obvious.

    We’ve had several years of Challenge Index now. It’s built some credibility and some inertia, and Jay Matthews’ (see what I did there?) name is a little more well-known. I would be excited to see some of that mental capital spent on taking a next step. I just wish I knew what that step should be. :)

  3. Ruth

    I fail to understand why AP (or IB) classes are so important. And USA Today reports that pass rates are going down. Probably because they are pushing kids into classes they shouldn’t be taking! And yes, Assorted Stuff, you are correct about the apostrophe.

  4. Jen

    Just found the blog… and this is one point I can give valid input on, FWIW:

    The Chicago Manual of Style (15th ed) suggests that, with proper names ending in s, you add the second s — so you would make it Matthews’s list. (The exceptions are if you pronounce the s at the end of the name as an “eez” sound, or if you’re sure that the s is silent. So you leave it off of Euripides’ tragedies and Descartes’ dreams, to use examples from the style guide.)

    However, Chicago goes on to add that the “old rule” was to omit the second s on all words ending with s, and that you can still go by that rule if you prefer. (Way to be decisive, Chicago.)

    That said, if you go by the “write it like you’d pronounce it” rule of thumb that seems to drive the rules for -eez and silent-s endings… I never hear anyone refer to “Matthewses” school rankings — people tend to just say the one s that already belongs in his name and leave it at that. Matthews’ list.

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