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Readers question Challenge Index

After the release of every new Washington Post Challenge Index list, my rankings of local high schools based on college-level test participation, I get many questions, complaints and even an occasional compliment from readers. Here is a sample of this week's mail. There are some surprises.

Q: When you were compiling your list, I was developing my own, which I feel is equally important. I decided to look at the graduation rates for students with disabilities from the Virginia school report card. Last year Centreville High School had a graduation rate for students with disabilities of 63%. While it’s not the lowest in this category in Fairfax County – Edison and West Potomac have that esteemed title at 49%-- I still think that a rate where over one third of the students with disabilities do not graduate is a compelling statistic, and one that should be spotlighted. Here are the graduation rates for students with disabilities for the other high schools from your Challenge Index – Woodson 90%, McLean 72%, Langley 88%, Madison 81%, Herndon 52%, Oakton 84%, Lake Braddock 75%, Fairfax 61%, Marshall 61%, South Lakes 57%, Chantilly 71%, West Springfield 70%, South County 66%, Westfield 70%, Stuart 51%, Falls Church 55%, West Potomac 49%, Hayfield 61%, Lee 52%, Mt Vernon 61%.

Why should I be excited about my son attending a school where in all likelihood he will not take an AP, IB or college level class, and where he has a 37% chance of not graduating? ---JoNell M. Doyle

A. Yours is an interesting list. The graduation percentages seem to align closely with the relative family incomes of these different schools. So do the differences reflect lack of concern at some schools, or demographics? If any one has a good idea for how to quantify the quality of special education services, I would like to hear it. Just one objection: What makes you think your son can't take an AP class? Many students with disabilities do so.

Q. The downside not discussed is that from 1989 to 2009, the percentage of AP exams earning a 1 (lowest score) has doubled, from 10% to 20%. Over that same period, the mean score declined from just over 3 to 2.89. This tells me a lot of kids are being pushed into a AP classes for which they aren't ready or motivated.---semitone, a reader making a comment on this blog.

A. Your facts are right but your interpretation needs work. Get inside the schools that are doing this and you find many of the students who will get 1s are quite motivated, and much readier for the next step in that subject than they would be if they had not been encouraged to take AP. The Catching Up part of my Challenge Index list identifies the schools that are trying to raise achievement this way, and reveals how low their passing rates are. The alternative for most of those kids whom you assume are not motivated or ready is to sit in a class that is not going to try very hard to teach them.

Q. Criticism of Newsweek's Challenge Index is misplaced and misdirected. This is due to the limited background of critics who show no knowledge of a valuable analog: evolutionary theory.  Consider two strong critics of Jay Mathew's work: Sara Mead and Andrew Rotherham.  They succinctly write:

"A successful high school should show high levels of student achievement, graduate almost all of its students and not let any demographic subgroup suffer at the expense of others. Most national and local experts and policymakers share these values. To be sure, graduation rates and student achievement are hardly the only indicators of a school's quality. At a minimum, however, America's best high schools should be expected to meet these basic criteria.

"Yet our analysis shows that many schools on Newsweek's list do not meet these minimum standards."

Mead's and Rotherham's words appear well-chosen and difficult with which to disagree, but they are actually irrelevant and misleading for the simple reason that education is an individual achievement. Bureaucratic measures are not only meaningless, but often distorting to individual students. The efforts in education are simply those of multiple single individuals seeking the necessary trade-offs and efficiencies in teaching the many; and there are many types of many.  Education is hard, but education is not policy.  Forcing education to fit policy is a fool's game. There are many fools. 

In 1966, simple Darwinism, which holds that evolution functions primarily at the level of the individual organism, was threatened by opposing concepts such as group selection, a popular idea stating that evolution acts to select entire species rather than individuals. George Williams's famous argument in favor of the Darwinists delivered the decisive response to those in opposing camps. His Adaptation and Natural Selection, now a classic of science literature, is a thorough and convincing essay in defense of Darwinism; its suggestions for developing effective principles for dealing with the evolution debate and its relevance to many fields outside biology ensure the timelessness of this critical work. 

Almost all Ed wonks ignore this.  For example, they think that subgroup success and small achievement gaps on tests matter.  Well it does for them and it sounds nice, but what does it matter to an individual student?  Is it real to think that someone picks the a school because it has a small achievement gap, without asking how much achievement?  Do Hispanic parents chose a school for their children because the Native-American subgroup did OK, without asking "what's OK?" 

Saying "meeting proficiency in state standards" truly begs the question.  People merely want a safe school with solid academics to maximize the chances of successful students.  Everything else, outside of athletic concerns, is silly fluff for concerned, irrelevant-to-learning, but not to education, bureaucrats.  This can be nasty sounding.  For example, a school with a high dropout rate isn't really an issue to successful students.  It may actually be a plus:  get rid of low-performing riffraff.  This is what sport teams on campuses know anyway.
The Challenge Index simply and effectively help parents and students pick schools from their perspective!---Dennis Ashendorf, math teacher in Newport Beach, Calif.

A. I don't think I am qualified to judge the science in your thesis, but I like the sound of what you are saying. This is unlike anything that I have ever heard about the index since it was born, in a Hobbesian world of malice and doubt, in 1998. Thank you.

Q. I know you have a soft spot for Wakefield H.S. in Arlington, so here's more good news! Arlington County's AP statistics for 2009 show that 60% of the AP exams for Wakefield resulted in passing scores. This compares very favorably with HB Woodlawn, which had 61% of exams with qualifying scores. Interesting, huh?! Washington-Lee was at 49% and Yorktown at 74%. Data on Arlington Public Schools website.---Karen Tucker, Arlington parent

A. I try not to pay too much attention to passing rates, since they are often used by schools whose rates are high because only the A students are allowed to take AP. But Wakefield lets everyone take AP, and then drags in a few more who would really prefer not to but have made the mistake of showing some potential. The school has great teachers. They should take pride in these numbers.

Q. My son, who took the complete IB diploma (graduating as a valedictorian at Lee HS), took the maximum number of IB exams he possibly could which was seven. His best friends from West Springfield and Thomas Jefferson took 14-16 AP exams. IB tested knowledge streams vs AP which tests discrete knowledge units, yielding systematically biased lower potential scores for IB high schools vs AP high schools on the challenge index. This will always make AP schools appear more "challenging" than IB schools when using "tests taken" as the proxy for challenge. In fact, it makes West Springfield (an AP only high school) look twice as challenging as Lee (an IB only high school) with a score of 2.873 to 1.441. This difference in reality is an artifact of the program design differences between AP and IB.---Joel Cook

A. Maybe. But I would first have to see a study with a much larger sample than three schools before I accepted your premise. On the Newsweek Top High Schools List of more than 1,500 schools, places with IB programs are found in a much larger proportion than their two percent share of the total number of U.S. high schools. Seven of the top 20, for instance, have IB. Many IB schools have ninth and tenth graders take AP classes, which ups their numbers. AP schools don't have that option. Any way, comparing the three fine schools you cite seems trivial to me. The important question is why do the vast majority of U.S. high schools not come close to the challenge those three schools offer their students?

Q. My son is a 9th grader in the stem program at North County High School. Soon he must choose courses for next year. I would be helpful to know what
the AP course grade report is for the many AP course given at North County. I found information saying about 300 kids took an AP test at North County last year and about a quarter of them earned a 3 or higher but it would be helpful to know specific numbers and results such as 100 kids took AP calculus AB and 20 kids earned a 3 while 3 earned a 4 and 2 kids got a 5.---Jane Andraka

A. You sent me a response from Anne Arundel County AP specialist Don Counts confirming what I heard from county schools spokesman Bob Mosier. That district will soon join others who have made this useful information available on their Web sites. It is a good idea, and it is spreading.

By Jay Mathews  | February 5, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Trends  | Tags:  Advanced Placement, Challenge Index, Darwin, International Baccalaureate, selective colleges, special education  
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Next: U-Va. cheats IB students


"For example, a school with a high dropout rate isn't really an issue to successful students. It may actually be a plus: get rid of low-performing riffraff. This is what sport teams on campuses know anyway."


Posted by: pittypatt | February 5, 2010 12:12 PM | Report abuse

This comment is for "WHY AP STUDENTS FAIL"
I told my teachers junior year that my principal was not paying for me to take the AP exam, but Tax payers were. Many schools are forcing students to take AP, while not allowing the student any choice. BY THE WAY I THINK THAT AP IS NOT THE ONLY WAY TO BE PREPARED FOR COLLEGE. I feel that the AP courses I took did not prepare me at all. All I got out of them was a score of 4 and I could not use them for any general education classes. I feel that the classes and the schools did not prepare me for college. I PREPARED MYSELF FOR COLLEGE. Most curriculum covered in the AP English and literature is not covered in College. For example, Equus, a play about a boy who has a sexual infatuation with horses, is not covered in a college English class needed for general education. In college English classes, students cover APA citation, Research papers, and classic literature(Moliere, Jane Austen, CS Lewis).

Posted by: LadyJane341 | February 6, 2010 2:51 AM | Report abuse

Jay - don't forget to post the Columbia Heights AP data, including AP Spanish, as you said you would a couple of days ago in your comment to me:


Posted by: efavorite | February 6, 2010 3:53 PM | Report abuse

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