wasting bandwidth since 1999

Return of the Numbers

Jay Mathews’ AP fan club is back in session!

Newsweek’s cover article this week features their annual listing of America’s “best” high schools, based on Mathews increasing bogus “Challenge” Index”.

For those who haven’t suffered through my previous rants on this topic, here’s now this little game works.

The “Challenge” Index is compiled using one simple piece of arithmetic. Each school gets a number which is the ratio of “the number of Advanced Placement and/or International Baccalaureate tests taken by all students at a school in 2005 divided by the number of graduating seniors”.

At the same time, the ranking ignores all student scores on those tests, along with vocational programs, artistic and musical achievements, student publications and any other measures you might use to judge the quality of a school.

Mix the numbers together into a high profile article in a national magazine that attracts all kinds of other media attention and you have one of the most worthless exercises in educational reporting.

To be fair, the main article in the magazine offers some good examples of how some schools are fostering student achievement outside of Mathews’ numbers. But it’s the “Challenge” Index ranking that will make headlines in local papers and school district propaganda.

Simplistic numbers always garner much more attention than complicated details. They also lull people into believing the path to genuine school reform is as easy as 1, 2, 3.

Update: The Post helpfully ranks the states by the number of schools on Mathews’ “best” list. Educators in Alaska, Hawaii, Indiana, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Wyoming, all of which placed no schools, are in deep doo doo.


  1. Richard

    Do I understand correctly that a high dropout rate would boost a school’s score?

  2. Tim

    That would be one way to move up the ranking on this index. Another way would be to pay for a large number of students to take the tests regardless of whether they’re prepared.

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