Challenging Jay’s Challenge Index
Someone has to say it, so I will.
Today my esteemed colleague Jay Mathews published his Washington region version of the Challenge Index, the annual exercise in which he ranks high schools.
How does he do this? With this formula that he devised years ago: The number of Advanced Placement and/or International Baccalaureate and/or other college-level tests taken by all students at a school, divided by the number of graduating seniors.
That’s it. Is it enough? I don't think so.
Before I go further, let me say this about it: It is true that there are very few measures, if any, that allow you to compare schools with different budgets, demographics, teacher pay rates, etc. This, for all its flaws, is one.
And outside the Washington area -- amazingly, 77 percent of high schools around here rank in the top 6 percent of U.S. schools on Jay's national Challenge Index -- there are thousands of schools that put obstacles in the way of kids who might profit from more challenging high school courses. The Challenge Index challenges these schools to change their ways.
On his blog today, Jay says that the “outrage and acclaim” that swirls around his index -- and there is a lot of both -- “usually swirls around the issue of whether ranking schools is good for you.”
Actually, it swirls around more than that. It isn’t just about the value of ranking, which has become an obsession in this country, so much so that few of them have any meaning.
It is about his methodology.
Judging a school by a single measure is incomplete. And even though Jay says he isn’t judging the QUALITY of the school, but rather how it is challenging its students, readers view his rankings as a judgment of quality.
Besides, there are lots of ways a school can challenge students other than offering AP and IB courses. And some of the schools on the list have serious problems, such as high dropout rates and wide gaps between the achievement of whites and Asians and everybody else.
Jay says that his intention is to see how regular high schools challenge their students academically. That’s why he excludes magnet schools and schools that require admission criteria for more than half of their students (though he does include a school that requires all of its students to take AP classes, and that school turns out to be No. 3 on the new list).
And he says that he doesn’t think his index has had anywhere near as much influence on the practices of schools as some of those schools actually say.
Stop your kidding, Jay.
Everybody in the education world knows your index. Schools that wanted to move up on your list began offering more of these courses, sometimes to populations that may not have seemed ready. Because your index only considers the number of AP tests taken, and not the actual scores, schools put as many kids into the test pipeline as they could.
One graduate of Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School and parent of a BCC graduate said he thinks the methodology is suspect, but because the school always does well on the rankings, he loves it! His child was strongly encouraged by teachers to take extra AP and IB tests in what seemed to be a clear attempt to goose the numbers.
But still, I realized recently that maybe it isn't your fault. I realized that I should stop blaming YOU for all of this (though as I recall, you did not accept my forgiveness).
I was thinking about parents who push their kids into spending every waking hour trying to beef up their college application accomplishments so the Ivy League will welcome them. They should stop driving their kids insane.
And then I thought of your Challenge Index and realized that the administrators didn’t actually have to react to your list. They could just look at the ranking as another in a long list that either don’t tell us much, or tell us one piece of a complicated puzzle, and not fall over themselves to climb higher on your list.
Though I have to say that it must be fun doing this every year -- having people tell you they think your list is great or that they think it is the worst thing ever.
Maybe I should come up with a ranking of my own. I’d love readers to tell me what I should l rank at email@example.com. We can do this too, Jay. Just you watch.
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| February 1, 2010; 12:24 PM ET
Categories: High School, Standardized Tests | Tags: challenge index
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