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Posted at 11:30 AM ET, 11/ 5/2009

Dear Jay .... About that ‘Challenge Index’ of yours

By Valerie Strauss

Dear Mr. Mathews,

For some time now, I have quietly cursed your Challenge Index.

(Okay, maybe not so quietly).

You know the one I mean--your annual compilation of the country’s “most challenging” public high schools, which you calculate according to this ratio: the number of Advanced Placement and/or International Baccalaureate tests taken by all students at a school, divided by the number of graduating seniors.

(This year’s list of 1,500 schools was published last June in Newsweek; the Washington D.C. region version is published in The Washington Post. But come to think of it, you know this already, don’t you?)

When I first read your methodology, I didn’t get it. How, I asked, could this simple ratio tell you much about a school, other than that a bunch of kids did or did not take some standardized test?

(See Jay's reply to Valerie here.)

I heard you explain that your intention is to see how regular high schools challenge their students academically. That’s why, you said, you exclude magnet schools and schools that require admission criteria for more than half of their students.

You said that it was useful to determine the number of students taking difficult courses, because research shows that the best predictor of college success is not the SAT or the ACT, but how well a student does in high school.

Because you are so well known--deservedly so; you are the most knowledgeable education writer in the country, if you ask me, which you didn’t--your index began to have more influence than you might have expected.

Our colleagues in the media began reporting on your results. Heck, The Post used to do news stories based on your list in The Post!

Schools wanted to move up on your list and they began to offer more of these courses, sometimes to populations that may not have seemed ready. Because your index only considers the number of AP and tests taken, and not the actual scores, schools decided to put as many kids into the test pipeline as they could.

I have actually heard school administrators and teachers say fairly nasty things about you and your index (I always defended your honor, I swear). They blamed you for what has become an unseemly competition to be the top school on your list, and for fostering an obsession with Advanced Placement.

And, for a long time, Jay, I have to admit, I kind of agreed with them.

Well, not ‘kind of.’ Flat out.

I looked at the list and saw some schools that I knew had serious issues, like big dropout rates, or wide gaps between the achievement of whites and Asians and everybody else.

I visited schools that I thought often did an amazing job of taking students who were very far behind and helping them move forward -- but with an approach that didn’t include AP or IB.

I just couldn’t bring myself to think that AP and IB were the be-all and end-all of academic achievement--especially after it became known a few years back that some AP courses were more rigorous than others, and that the College Board, which owns the program, was conducting a course audit. I also knew that some of the top schools in the country have dropped their AP programs and created even tougher, more challenging courses.

So determining what is challenging and what isn’t seemed, well, more complicated than a single ratio. And I blamed you for driving schools to do things they knew they shouldn’t just so they would look good on your list.

And then, Jay, I recently had an epiphany.

Here's what happened: I was thinking about parents, the ones who know better than to push their kids into spending every waking hour trying to build a supercharged resume for college, but who do it anyway.

“Why,” I thought, “can’t they just say, ‘No, I will not drive my children insane so they have a chance of going to the Ivy League.' Where is the personal responsibility?”

And then, Jay, I thought of your Challenge Index, and I said to myself:

“Wait a minute. Why is it Jay’s fault that school administrators decided to take his index and turn themselves inside out so they might climb higher on his list?

“Sure, parents and policy-makers badly pressured the schools to do whatever it took to climb Jay’s list. But couldn’t those educators, the ones who are responsible for teaching future generations how to think for themselves, think for themselves and say, ‘No. It isn’t the right thing for us to do and here’s why, and you can like it or lump it'.”

“Where was the responsibility to the institution, and to the students, to say, ‘Jay, your list is entertaining. It is perhaps a single piece in a large puzzle about student achievement and effective public schooling. But really, we aren’t going to pretend it is a sacrosanct list to which we will bow'.”

I have a feeling that if they had said that to you, you would have said, “Well it’s about time.”

So, Jay, please accept my apologies for blaming you all these years. I hope you can forgive me.

Regards, your colleague,

P.S.: I wonder what my readers--and yours, too--would think about my change of heart.

Here's Jay's response.

By Valerie Strauss  | November 5, 2009; 11:30 AM ET
Tags:  Advanced Placement, Jay Mathews, The Challenge Index  
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