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Welcoming a new school rating

My clever colleague Valerie Strauss suggested readers come up with alternatives to my high school rating system, the Challenge Index. On Feb. 20 she posted an intriguing suggestion by Montgomery County parent Louis Wilen, which she dubbed the Wilen Index, on how to move school rankings to a new level. This was smart because not only did it reveal she was working on Saturday, and thus winning our editors' untold devotion (I was at the supermarket with the other househusbands), but it showed how easily and cheaply I can be replaced.

Wilen, who has also favored me with some wise emails, showed a way we could use the trend toward rating schools under federal and state law by measuring how much students improve each year. Since the PSAT has become a popular tool for getting high school ninth and tenth graders ready for college-entrance tests (and seeing what kind of high school courses they might be ready for), he suggested that we take the average for all PSAT tests given tenth graders at each high school and compare it to their average SAT scores when they are in 12th grade. Subtract the 10th grade average from the 12th grade average and you see how much value that school has added.

It is an idea whose time may come. At the moment, however, we don't have PSAT or SAT scores for every student at a school. The students not bound for college who are least likely to be tested are the ones most likely to have low scores, so leaving them out would distort the Wilen Index. But we may get to the point where these tests are required, as some Midwestern states now require that all students take the ACT, and we can then experiment with Wilen idea.

He inspired an idea of my own. Why not take the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a new essay exam that measures analysis and critical thinking, and apply it to high schools. Some colleges give it to all of their freshmen, and then again to that class when they are seniors, and see how much value their professors at that college have added. We could do the same for high schools, with maybe a somewhat less strenuous version. That would still be to me more useful than comparing multiple choice tests like the PSAT and SAT.

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By Jay Mathews  | February 22, 2010; 3:54 PM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  Challenge Index, Collegiate Learning, Collegiate Learning Assessment, Louis Wilen, Wilen Index, using PSAT and SAT to rate schools  
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Next: Crawling toward national tests


Interesting concept comparing PSAT scores from one year to the next to determine school performance as South Carolina currently does. However, if the goal is to assess school performance particularly in regards to reducing achievement gaps, not only are certain students left out but more importantly entire schools whose budgets cannot pay for PSATs are also left behind...

Posted by: kimkopfman | February 22, 2010 9:24 PM | Report abuse

You could do this using the PLAN and the ACT. In Tennessee all 8th or 9th graders take the plan. Last year they started requiring all juniors take the ACT. ince more students take the ACT...

In my sons' private school they start the PSAT in 8th grade. Parents are coached along the way how the scores equate to the was very very helpful...

Posted by: knoxelcomcastnet | February 23, 2010 5:30 AM | Report abuse

Maybe Bill Gates or Warren Buffett can be convinced to spring for a non-commercial comprehensive test approximating the breadth and depth of the PSAT but designed to be delivered via the Internet for free or proctored for whatever the costs are of that delivery method.

Posted by: allenm1 | February 23, 2010 7:21 AM | Report abuse

Have you taken these tests lately? As a teacher I am appalled how casually adults decide that teens should take downright painful tests that are of really no use to most students. Have you talked to teens? Do they want to go all out on another test? And if they don't then consider what the data is worth. Senioritis. . .heard of it?

Posted by: pittypatt | February 23, 2010 8:37 AM | Report abuse

As always, Jay is too kind. Wilen's rating is entirely different from Jay's. One - Wilen - tries to look at how a school does, based on student scores. The other - Jay - tries to show how well a school provides opportunity, based on how many tests are taken. Jay ignores this and takes Wilen's index at face value.
Too bad. I want to know which schools try hardest to lift all boats, not which schools lift boats the highest.
Perhaps Ms. Strauss could have spent her time more profitably with Jay in the supermarket.

Posted by: LoveIB | February 23, 2010 12:39 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the thoughtful message, LoveIB, but I want to make it clear to one and all that I shop alone. It is the decision-making highlight of my week.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | February 23, 2010 1:53 PM | Report abuse

Hi Jay,
Let me be the first to boldly predict that the ACT will become the national measuring stick. It will be given to every junior in every high school in every state as it is given by the state of Illinois. ACT has already developed its QualityCore program which " directly aligned to ACT's College and Career Readiness Systems, which measures whether students are on target for becoming college and career ready in English, math, science, and social studies. The QualityCore resources and standards are designed to prepare all students to meet or exceed those benchmarks and graduate from college or workplace training without remediation." (
These benchmarks are closely aligned with the developing national standards.
(I'm a high school teacher and I swear I don't work for ACT.)

Posted by: southsidemike1 | February 24, 2010 3:21 PM | Report abuse

I think that there are too many variables in many of our schools to effectively determine the success or accountability for a teacher. At my school approximately 30% of the students we test for state AYP were not at our school at the beginning of the year. If we were to compare PSAT and SAT scores the same thing would happen large numbers of our students would not be included in the pool.

Another major factor is what you want to accomplish when you educate students. Do you want them to become adept at regurgitation or do you want them to think critically? Most standardized tests are not geared to understanding the actual ability of a student to analyze and then synthesize materials, but they are objective and don't allow students to explain their answer or show their actual understanding. Even essay tests are often unreliable as frequently those correcting the tests are given key words or phrases to look for and are told that if the essay does not contain those elements it is incorrect.

Encouraging teachers to continue their education ensuring that they stay abreast with their field of expertise and learn the latest teaching pedagogy for the subjects that they teach is a way to create quality teachers who will do the best job for our students. Encouraging teachers to be the best they can be and then rewarding them with livable wages are two of the best ways to make sure that we provide a quality education for our students. In education you do get what you pay for. If the wage is so low that you don't attract people who will do a good job, then you need to raise the salaries to reflect a decent wage in today's market place, then school districts will be FLOODED with applicants and will be able to pick the most qualified teachers.

Posted by: iKate | February 24, 2010 6:00 PM | Report abuse

The Wilin Index works. I used it for my son. UC Irvine, like other schools, has a gifted program. It uses PSAT's for qualification starting in grade 6. UCI offers it each week. See and then click the PSAT pages. My son never entered the program, but he took the test annually.

The funny part was that his performance improved each year until grade 10. The school was better, but he was trying "active slacking." He was trying to earn A's at 90.01 during the year. He didn't learn as much.

I support the EPAS system from ACT, but the idea of the same test as a marker is pretty obvious when one thinks about it.

Posted by: OrangeMath | February 28, 2010 3:13 AM | Report abuse

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