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While You Were Sleeping

It must be all the distractions that come with winter break, but I missed Jay Mathews’ recent unleashing the DC-area edition of his Challenge Index. I can only assume that the national list will be showing up as a cover story in Newsweek very soon.

The index is Mathews invention to rank high schools based on a simple formula: “Divide the number of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or other college level tests a school gave by the number of seniors who graduated in June.”

While he claims “the rating is not a measurement of the overall quality of the school”, Mathews still takes every opportunity to play up the Index as a golden indicator of school quality. Case in point is today’s article in which he uses the index as evidence that several high schools in the District (and elsewhere in the area) are improving.

Wilson High in Northwest went from 666 to 775 Advanced Placement tests, raising its rating on the Challenge Index to 2.541, the highest ever attained by the school. It achieved the higher percentage without any decline in the passing rate on the AP tests, which remained at 51 percent.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with more students attempting an AP class. However, the statistics he notes also points up the primary flaw of the index. It looks only at how many students took the tests, and includes nothing about how many actually passed it.

I know I’ve ranted about this many times before (hey, it’s the season for reruns retrospectives), but there are many factors that go into making a good high school. The number of students in advanced classes is only one small part. Unfortunately, the Challenge Index gets far more headlines – and, as a result, is given far more weight – than it deserves.


  1. Chris Lehmann

    Yep. Your critique is dead-on. And it’s also a strike against schools that might dare to say that an advanced class that doesn’t end in a standardized test isn’t the best way for kids to learn. But hey, what else is new? :)

  2. Ms. Cornelius

    I teach an AP class which also used to be dual credit at a local university. The thing about having that test staring down at you that keeps you from being able to linget over an interesting tidbit. But then again, it keeps people from lollygagging in a manner that prevents the kids from getting a rounded view of US history. The teacher who taught the class as a straight college credit class was discussing Andrew Jackson in February!

    The problem with rankings like these is also that schools then put pressure on the teachers to lower the standards one whould have for a college-level class– AP or not– in order to inflate the number of kids taking advanced classes. I think the kids should make some effort to reach the standard if they want the cachet of college credit on their transcripts. This is why I am unconcerned with the attempt to impose accountability on AP teachers by the College Board. People should be doing these types of things anyway.

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