What Kind of Challenge?

Last week while I was among the missing, Jay Mathews unleashed the Challenge Index, his annual ranking of schools in the DC area (the national version will be published later in Newsweek). The Index is pretty simple, assigning a score based on the simple ratio of the number of Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate given at a school to the number of graduating seniors.

I have no problem with Mathews (or anyone else) making a list and checking it twice. However, considering the amount of attention the ratings draw in this area, there’s a great deal about his system that doesn’t make sense. For one thing, the Index doesn’t take into account whether students actually do well on the tests. His theory is that a school giving lots of tests must be better than one that doesn’t.

A bigger problem is Mathews’ constant lauding of the AP program itself. The concept of this packaged curriculum is that students in high school who are capable of doing college-level work will get that chance in AP classes. It also says that scoring high enough on the end-of-class exam is supposed to lead to the student earning college credit.

However, as Mathews notes in this week’s Class Struggle column, that’s not necessarily happening. A growing number of universities are declining to accept AP scores or are bumping up the score need to earn the credit, a fact that outrages Mathews who is a vocal advocate of AP/IP classes.

In this last dispute, I can see the arguments on both sides. If students are doing college-level work, they should receive college credit. But who gets to say exactly what is “college-level” work? I agree with Mathews that, considering the poor undergraduate teaching that goes on at many universities, the ivory towers may not be the best place to go for that assessment.

On the other hand, the College Board, keeper of the AP flame, has a vested interest in spreading it’s franchise. And schools in this area have an interest in pushing more and more students into AP/IB classes, as much to improve their public relations as anything else. The result has been some watering down of the curriculum (remember, it’s only important to take the test, not pass it) to the point that some schools now offer regular AP and “light” versions of some popular classes.

In the end, however, the AP program is not worthy of an education writer’s unqualified adoration. It is only one tool in the process of school improvement – not the saviour of public high school.