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New Challenge Index Twist: Catching Up

Newsweek unveils its 2009 America’s Top High Schools list today, all online. About 1,500 schools, the most ever, will be ranked by participation rates on college-level exams, particularly Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Cambridge. I invented Newsweek’s and the Washington Post’s high school rating system, the Challenge Index, in 1998 to dramatize the widespread failure of public schools to prepare average students for college.

There have been some improvements since, but only 6 percent of high schools still meet Newsweek’s modest standard of having at least as many college-level tests in 2008 as they had graduating seniors. A high school can make the Newsweek list if just half of its juniors and half of its seniors take one AP test each of those years, but many schools shy away from even that much exposure to college-level courses and exams.

This year I have added a new element, the Catching Up list, which spotlights schools in low-income neighborhoods that have coaxed many or all of their students into AP, even though less than 10 percent of them pass the three-hour final exams. They see it as shock treatment to show students how much more they need to learn to be ready for college, and to motivate their teachers to raise their standards to that level. I analyze this new trend in a story, also on, and in my Monday Post Metro column yesterday. These schools are focusing AP on low-performing students, the same sort of teenagers who are the subject of Michael Birnbaum’s piece today in TK on efforts to reduce dropouts.

This year’s Newsweek list for the first time has its No. 1 and No. 2 schools housed in the same building. The School for the Talented and Gifted and the School for Science and Engineering are among six specialty public schools in the Yvonne A. Ewell Townview Center in Dallas. Both have had success recruiting impoverished students for the most rigorous high school schedules in country: One quarter of top-ranked TAG’s students are from low-income families, as are nearly half of Science and Engineering’s students.

By Washington Post editors  | June 9, 2009; 3:19 AM ET
Tags:  Advanced Placement, Challenge Index, International Baccalaureate, school rankings  
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Next: Admissions 101: Should Colleges Ditch the SAT for AP as the Main Admissions Exam?

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