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Still Challenging The Index

A little later than usual, Newsweek in its next edition will be presenting it’s annual list of America’s top high schools.

“Top”, of course, is determined by Jay Mathews’ “challenge” index, a ranking based solely on the number of students who take AP tests without regard for their scores on those tests.

In his Monday Post column Mathews announces the unleashing of Index ’09 and continues with a defense of his belief in AP-for-all as a universal tool for high school reform.

I’ve offered my opinions on both the “challenge” index and the place of AP classes many times in the past (and I’ve never once called it a “formula for failure”).

But for now let’s stick with Mathews’ interpretation of what I’ve included in this little rant fest.

One of my favorite bloggers, Fairfax County instructional technology specialist Tim Stahmer of assortedstuff.com*, frequently says too many unprepared students are being channeled into AP and urged to go to college.

My response is, what harm does that do? They work harder in high school, and if they graduate still determined not to go to college, they will discover that those AP skills are just what they need to get the best available jobs or trade school slots.

For starters, I’m not the only one who thinks that too many unprepared students are counseled into AP classes. A large majority of AP teachers in surveys, including a recent study from the Fordham Foundation, agree with that statement.

As to urging students to prepare for college, I’ve never said there’s anything wrong with that. My objection is in the way that the AP program is used in most high schools.

Excessive emphasis on AP classes (which the “challenge” index enables), often means that students, especially those with talents and interests that would not be served by a college education, wind up with fewer options.

Not to mention fostering the message that students not on a “college track” are somehow inferior.

Then there’s the idea that “college-prep” skills will serve all students regardless of whether they will (or want to) attend college. It’s a nice concept but that’s not the way it works.

The secondary math curriculum in most districts, which tracks everyone towards taking Calculus, is a good example of why.

Certainly everyone needs many of the same concepts taught in the college track classes but many, if not most, students would be better served with an emphasis on applying those concepts rather than on the conceptual foundations that dominate college-prep curriculums.

If I was running things (yea, right), all students would take a course in practical statistics (as opposed to the heavily theoretical AP stats curriculum).

Anyway, a similar laser-like tracking toward what the universities believe is good preparation is at the core of the other AP programs.

Finally, I have a big problem with the way the “challenge” index is used by both the media and the schools themselves as some kind of definitive measure of high school quality.

I’ve seen too many web sites and press releases from schools a short drive from here trumpeting that they are in the “Newsweek (or Washington Post) Top 100 High Schools in the US” without mentioning the “award” is strictly for students taking tests and nothing else.

There are far too many factors that go into a quality education and this kind of single-number approach detracts from that discussion.

On a larger scale, however, the concept of AP-for-all helps to lock in the traditional view of high school as college-lite when what we need is a total rethinking of the American education system.

* What, no link? :-) BTW, full disclosure: Mathews was nice enough to send me an early look at a draft of his column which made writing this rant and posting it the same morning much easier.

Update (6/9): For those interested, the Newsweek list of “America’s Top High Schools” is now online. And one of the rotating headline features on the main page.


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  1. Heather Blanton

    I couldn’t agree more. I had a college prof last year go on a tirade that ALL students can and should go to college. I am an ITRT in a rural part of Virginia facing many of the same issues that educators around the country are facing. Do I want all of my students to achieve at high levels? YES! Do I think that going to college would give many of them a leg up in the world? YES! Do I think that all students are able to be successful in the college track? NO! We get locked into thinking that post secondary education should be the hallowed halls of Ivy league, when for some very successful business owners it might be taking night classes in refrigeration at a workforce development center or technical school program. I hear the same thing from my AP teachers, students who are not prepared taking the courses.
    From my point of view, the most dangerous thing about putting students who are ill prepared for this level of classes into AP courses is the watering down of the AP curriculum. We do further damage to our truly gifted/talented and our highly motivated. If those students who should take these classes are held back by instructors who have to constantly back track for those who are struggling, then they will not get the most out of the AP experience. Also, many of our high schoolers, have figured out that they can just take a college course for credit and not worry about the AP tests. We’re situated with a community college and a four year instituation at either end of our county so many of our students enter college as sophomores. Thus, I don’t believe according to Mr. Matthews criteria, any of our schools will be making his list.

  2. Donna Russell

    I think AP classes are fine for everyone if we redefine what AP are for. Right now they are only available for and intended for the college bound. There should be AP courses for those who are geniuses with cars, plumbing, electrical, carpentry, starting a home business, the arts, and as an SBTS (School Based Technology Specialist) in Fairfax VA, I would like to see an AP program for Technology. We discriminate against those students with talents that don’t fit the college bound “ideal”. I really miss the carpenters, plumbers of old who really knew their stuff.

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