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Numbers hide a great high school

I was astonished to see T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria labeled a "persistently lowest achieving school," as reported by my colleague Michael Alison Chandler. This exposes the untruths that can come from sticking to a test-score formula for labeling schools. But in a surprising way, it also reveals a helpful twist in the way this might work out for the school and the Obama administration.

I have looked at a lot of schools like T.C. Fifty three percent of its students are from impoverished families. Even more are minorities. Often such places have gone through a succession of principals, have trouble holding onto good teachers and don't show much interesting in challenging the students they have. On every one of those indicators, T.C. is the exact opposite, a school that has strong leadership, exceptional faculty and a participation rate on college-level courses and tests that puts it in the top four percent of U.S. public high schools.

The reason why it is so strong has to do, as if often the case, with an unusual school and community culture. Alexandria is one of the rare communities where a critical mass of middle-class families, who saw that the school had great teachers and a long record of sending students to selective colleges, stuck with public education while similar families in other communities abandoned it.

So why did T.C. get such a bad rap this time? It seems to have something to do with a federal grant that focuses in part on schools like T.C. that fill a peculiar niche. Those are the 128 high schools in Virginia that have large numbers of low-income students, and would qualify for anti-poverty funding under a federal law called Title I, but don't in fact get that money. In that group, which likely includes several schools with hidden strengths, T.C.'s test scores are low enough to earn the low achieving school label and qualify for $1.5 million in extra federal funds.

Some of the numbers in Chandler's story show that T.C. was not that far below several benchmarks. In 2009, 78 percent of its students graduated in four years, compared to 83 percent for the state. In 2008, 82 percent of T.C. students passed the
state reading test and 79 percent the math test, compared to 87 percent and 84 percent respectively for the state.

Fortunately, the teachers and families of T.C. Williams know how good their school is, so they won't be leaving because of this odd funding system. And here is the twist: many schools that receive the extra federal money won't know what to do with it. The T.C. Williams faculty and administrators will know exactly how to use it in creative and effective ways. I say, Go Titans, and don't worry about funding systems that often don't make sense.

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By Jay Mathews  | March 12, 2010; 3:13 PM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  T.C. Williams High School, a great school mislabeled, great families, strange funding rules, strong faculty  
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But their choices in how to use the money is limited: "closing the school and sending its students elsewhere; reopening it as a charter school; firing the principal and at least half the faculty; or submitting to a host of instructional changes that include lengthening the school day or year and expanding professional development." (as per today's article)

Sounds like they would go for the fourth and least draconian option. Unfortunately, it doesn't address the real problem, which is a sub-set of students with learning deficits and family issues. If they could put the money toward social services and special tutors for THOSE KIDS in need, then the federal cash would be useful. But as long as Obama insists it must be used to flush out bad teaching, it a huge, sad waste.

I'm hoping the TCW community, including alums, will rally not only for their school but for all the schools involved in this horror, to make it end quickly, before schools are harmed needlessly and more children are truly left behind.

Posted by: efavorite | March 12, 2010 4:32 PM | Report abuse

Thanks, Jay! I hope all of the people who read the original article read your column as well, so that the true picture of this situation at TCW is made clear.

It doesn't come as a surprise to anyone in the TC community that some 20% of the students have difficulty passing standardized tests. In fact, the surprise could be that the pass rate is as high as 80%. After all, the demographics are stacked against ACPS on these measures, with the student body overwhelmingly consisting of the multi-generational impoverished (culture and parental support issues) and the recently immigrated (language difficulties).

I hope the Alexandria community is savvy and level-headed enough to continue to rally around TCW in this situation, just as you suggest.

Posted by: nan_lynn | March 12, 2010 4:33 PM | Report abuse

Jay- This could be a unique opportunity to demonstrate with real data the pressing issues educating low-performing students. TC Williams, the only high school in a city with a diverse population, has teachers, I presume, who teach both high-scoring and low-scoring students, probably at least sometimes in the same class. Are these great teachers for the high-scoring kids but rotten teachers deserving of being fired for the low-scoring kids? Can you fire half a teacher? Are the teachers deficient in some way because they don’t differentiate their lessons properly to get the kids to all learn at high levels? Are some teachers better in a quantifiable way with one type of kid than the other?

Let’s talk to the teachers themselves about their challenges and let’s take them seriously, i.e., not assume they’re a bunch of slackers hanging on for their pensions. Ask them what they think could help the kids who need it. In a school like TCW, teachers might have some pretty interesting ideas.

Posted by: efavorite | March 12, 2010 5:22 PM | Report abuse

very good point efavorite, but would a mere $1.5 million over 3 years be enough to make a diffence? the school has about 1,500 low income kids. That works out to only $333.33 dollars per kid per year.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | March 12, 2010 5:26 PM | Report abuse

I don't know how to properly allocate the money.

I do know that any money will be wasted if it's not directed at the right problem.

That's common sense. Something I thought Obama had lots of.

Posted by: efavorite | March 12, 2010 5:47 PM | Report abuse

Not hard to see the silliness here. One rather pointed question for Jay. Do you really know enough about the quality of the individual teachers in Cedar Falls to say that half of them should be fired ( Obama right, Matthews wrong) when clearly there are other factors impacting student outcomes?

Posted by: mamoore1 | March 12, 2010 5:48 PM | Report abuse

Jay, you wrote:

"Often such places have gone through a succession of principals, have trouble holding onto good teachers and don't show much interesting in challenging the students they have. On every one of those indicators, T.C. is the exact opposite, a school that has strong leadership, exceptional faculty and a participation rate on college-level courses and tests that puts it in the top four percent of U.S. public high schools."

Who told you THAT? TC's administrators? That may be your opinion, but it sure isn't mine, and I live here. TC has TERRIBLE leadership, we've had steady turnover of our superintendents and principals in the past few years, SOME members of the faculty are exceptional but certainly not ALL - not by a long shot - and our college level participation rate? It's the upper middle class white kids, who make up about 23% of the total student body, that make up the significant portion of the AP courses.

TC is a segregated school within a school. Rumors are flying that many in the administration are about to bail out. Our school board and administration are weak and, in some cases, maybe even corrupt. The whole City school system is headed for charter status.

A "critical mass of middle class families" did NOT stick with the failing public schools. Only a small percentage of people. Lots of kids in Alexandria go to one of the MANY private schools here. Why would a city of only about 110,000 people TOTAL need FOUR private high schools (at least that I know about), plus even more private schools that only go to 8th grade. There is a huge demand for private schools here. Ask yourself why.

Posted by: gsquared100 | March 12, 2010 5:59 PM | Report abuse

I attended TC for four years and just graduated class of 2009 and am currently attending college in Vermont. Usually when people ask why I'm all the way up here, I jokingly tell them it's because I had to get away from Alexandria. Unfortunately, that's exactly why.

No offense, but I find the statement "Fortunately, the teachers and families of T.C. Williams know how good their school is" to be very silly because the teachers and families know exactly how underachieving this school is. Honestly, the only people who understand that better than the teachers are the students. We have teachers with great credentials but, generally (definitely not exclusively, though), the teachers and staff do not care about motivating the students. Actually, I would say considering how little the adults at TC care, we have pretty good test rates.

Looking forward to your response, I have a lot more to say!

Posted by: eatingdrywater17 | March 12, 2010 6:50 PM | Report abuse

Oh and I completely agree with everything gsquared100 said.

Posted by: eatingdrywater17 | March 12, 2010 6:51 PM | Report abuse

eatingdrywater17, it takes courage to live here, have graduated TC and to publicly criticize the only public high school within our sacred provincial borders! Expect to be waterboarded upon your return here this summer. This town hates to admit failure.

Posted by: gsquared100 | March 12, 2010 9:13 PM | Report abuse

"This exposes the untruths that can come from sticking to a test-score formula for labeling schools." JM

Aren't you the fellow who has devised a single measure college-test formula for labeling schools throughout the U.S. and continue to promote it every year?
When you retire Jay, please insist that Newsweek retire your test formula too- a formula which unfairly rewards quantity over quality.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | March 13, 2010 3:50 AM | Report abuse

Let me start first by saying TC Wiliams is a good school. But I really want to get to the real story and that is your willingness to dump YOUR philosophy concerning testing by rushing to denounce it in this case because you disagree with the designation. Now what was good for others is not good for those who thought they were wonderful. Suddenly we discover that the school is only educating the kids who would have been successful in any envrionment.You have irritated the hell out of me as you have not been able to see the culture of testing can have a significant detrimental impact on children and schools before T.C. Williams got hit.

You are a hypocrite of the first order.
NEXT you will be denouncing KIPP for its testing culture. MMMMM, I can't wait for that column.

Posted by: topryder1 | March 13, 2010 8:38 AM | Report abuse


You could have written the same column about Central Falls. Under mutliple measures, that school was in the middle of the pack. Under its last evaluation, it got glowing reports. It raised its scores more than the charters schools that the President visited, and its five year graduation rates were comparable to the dramatic inceases in rates in NYC, for instance, which were boosted by widespread fabrication, as documented by the official audit.

Of course, Central Falls has a far far greater challenge. Remember, a 53% poverty rate is AVERAGE, not remotely close to high poverty. And remember, the challenges don't just go up arithematically when a high school passes the 80 something percent poverty mark. The creation of a crticial mass of challenges is the problem that "reformers" want to ignore. And remember Central Falls had 0 placements for alternative schools, meaning it had to teach EVERYONE.

But the President just focused on one measure that came out of the absurdities of NCLB-type accountability. Publish an accurate number on Alegra II, when most schools are publishing distorted NCLB numbers, and your school gets the death penalty.

Or I should say schools like Central Falls who are a convenient scapegoat get the penalty, why more privileged schools have parents and journaists to come to their rescue.

efavorite, a couple of weeks ago, before I knew enough of the facts of Central Falls, I wasn't alarmed. Like my local union leaders, I'd seen closings and I thought this was just another.

You told me to "grow a pair," and you were absolutely right. When I saw Gist's testimony, read Tom Hoffman's and Steve Sawchuk's reports, and then confirmed their numbers, I recognized Central Falls for the ambush that it was.

Posted by: johnt4853 | March 13, 2010 9:30 AM | Report abuse

I live in Alexandria with school age children, none of whom attend the public schools. We made that decision a few years ago because every meeting for prospective parents we attended was dominated by diversity; rarely were academics discussed, and usually only in the context of raising the scores of the bottom. The school administrators made clear that white middle class students were not particularly welcome. A few years ago our civic association contemplated doing a survey to see how many families sent their children to the public school vice a private/Catholic school. We stopped the survey because the results would have revealed that fewer than 5% of eligible children used the public schools. After that, we started doing some homework and learned that while Alexandria was majority white, T.C. Williams was about 20% white (the real number may be lower). At the same time, Patrick Welsh was writing divisive articles -- one in particular I recall was how he used his position to run white make students out of his advanced classes because he felt they were overrepresented. We felt we could not send our children to an environment where they would spend their academic careers as potential targets from the faculty and administrators.

This has been a problem for a very long time, and the city's response has been to dismiss those concerns. Why? We do not have the votes to matter. At the time it was built, TC was the most expensive school ever built (it still may hold the record). Money is not, nor has it been, a problem. TC dropped $10 million on laptops and its huge budget is rarely questioned. Truth be told, TC will accept this finding because that means another $1.5 million.

TC has a reputation of "Yale or jail," and this finding is reflective of that.

Posted by: haunches | March 13, 2010 9:31 AM | Report abuse

Thanks john4853 - very gratifying to hear you say that and that you came to your conclusions by checking the facts. It's always the best way. I hope Obama does it soon.

Meanwhile, what do we do? I want this to be more than a rhetorical question. How can we organize to get Obama and Duncan to stop the madness?

Posted by: efavorite | March 13, 2010 11:47 AM | Report abuse

@gsquared100: Alexandria had one superintendent for 6+years, an interim for one year and Dr. Sherman arrived 18 months ago. TC had one principal for 22 years, another for two years and a third for two years (not unusual after a very long tenure). Dr. Sherman is seeking a principal willing to stay at least 3-5 years. There are over 140,000 people in Alexandria now. If all the children eligible to attend public school were to enroll, we would need at least six new school buildings. Alexandria has always has a strong private school contingent among residents. Except for the Friends school, the same three private high schools have served Alexandria for generations. Others have been closed or consolidated.

@haunches: The folks at Central Office most definitely need to hear your comments regarding your visits to schools and I will make sure they do. I’m not sure where the “5%” figure came from regarding eligible students in public school. The figure is at least 60% based on census data available on the City website. Alexandria is majority white and the school system is not – that is correct. I would like to see data on households with school age children (what percentage are white, vs. non-white). I wonder if part of the perceived discrepancy is because more non-white households have a higher number (therefore, percentage) of children. Many, many white households in Alexandria do not include school-age children.

Posted by: dcmarianne | March 13, 2010 1:07 PM | Report abuse


Regarding your non-rhetorical question, I was going to blog about the information that is available from you, Ed Harris, Linda, and other commenters. But, This Week in Education was off this week so I'll delay.

Its an oversimplification to say that we the traditional reformers have the evidence while they the data-driven "reformers" have the spin and the anger, but its not much of one. They are right on one thing; education is the civil rights issue of the 21st century.

So, when they step up the firing of excellent as well as ineffective teachers, the temptation will be for urban educators to throw in the towel or go to the suburbs. What we need are some Rosa Park's of our own to spearhead the litigation against Rhee, Klein, Grier, and the other extremes. We need to put a face on excellent teachers who struggle mightily to just slow the decline in neighborhood secondary schools. We need to force "reformers" to realize that they can't just assume they are on the right side of history because their motives are pure. They need to see how hard we will fight to stop their agenda.

I don't want us to jeopardize the Obama presidency, but we have to be willing to stand and fight. We can't have a repetition of NCLB where we were too slow in resisting. We should be embarrassed that we didn't boycott the testing and use civil resistance.

And Baby Boomers need to send another lesson before we retire. If we care enough to teach in the inner city we must care enough to fight the power. Too many young teachers are getting socialized into following orders and just working harder, and not resisting.

Yesterday, I said in the Faculty Lounge that we need our own Orange Revolution, and I was taken literally with young teachers thinking I wanted to throw oranges, as opposed to using communication technology to get the word out about the outrageous conditions and policies in our schools.

Posted by: johnt4853 | March 13, 2010 5:18 PM | Report abuse

dcmarianne -- To clarify, the civic associations's survey was limited to households with school-age children (5-18). Less than 5% of that population sent their children to public school, although obviously other neighborhoods must have had percentages closer to 50% for the numbers to work. I recall the association stopping the survey because it would prove embarrassing for the city and, to an extent, the neighborhood. And this was not the wealthiest neighborhood in the city by a significant margin.

As you can see from this thread (and a companion one under Mr. Chandler's article), politics affects EVERYTHING at TC.

Posted by: haunches | March 13, 2010 5:31 PM | Report abuse

john4853: "I don't want us to jeopardize the Obama presidency, but we have to be willing to stand and fight."

I see it as not an either/or. He is jeopardizing his own presidency with his senseless stance on education. We can only help him - and ourselves, by standing up and fighting.

Go read the comments at:

You'll see both wacko tea-baggers and earnest progressives against Obama's educational agenda. Of course the wackos are against everything he does. The earnest progressives are distraught that he could be so blind about education.

Truly disgusting.

Posted by: efavorite | March 13, 2010 11:16 PM | Report abuse

How did this come about? Did the superintendent apply for the Title I funds and thus created this new ranking?
As a parent of a middle school student in ACPS, I am concerned about T C becoming a Title I school. Does anyone know if the superintendent did apply and what is the future for my child and others in ACPS?

Posted by: linda26 | March 14, 2010 1:40 AM | Report abuse

It sounds like I wasn't the only one troubled by what seemed a glaring contradiction when the "Challenge Index" places a school high on the list yet persistently and historically fails to meet the learning needs of a large number of its students. This is not about funding formulas, it's about pedagogy, personal connnections, and leadership; not just the school administration but teachers, parents, and yes, the students themselves. As I read this morning's front page article on the President's proposed changes in NCLB, I was struck by continued focus on the bottom 5%. This should continue to be a primary tenet of the law as it has truly revolutionized our work with traditionally underserved populations. But, there is a secret hidden in plain site. In many of our schools, you could pluck a person off the street, place them in the principal's office and the school would meet all national and state standards (at least for awhile) because they are in neighborhoods where the kids come in already performing at the measured standards. I call this the "Open the Front Door School Improvement Plan." You open the door, the kids come in, the scores are good, and everything's cool. My concern with the old law and new proposals is that there is no measure that the students meeting all the benchmarks continue to learn. The law should have a a provision to measure that EVERY child is learning EVERY day. Isn't that really what defines a good school? That apparently isn't happening at TC Williams, but it also isn't happening in and many other schools who meet all of the standards and many at the top of the Challenge Index.

Posted by: tedhaynie | March 14, 2010 9:06 AM | Report abuse

Tedhaynie says: "The law should have a a provision to measure that EVERY child is learning EVERY day."

Are you in the educational testing business?

Posted by: efavorite | March 14, 2010 9:56 AM | Report abuse

For Patrickmattimore, toprydert and others who suggested I am contradicting myself, read what I said again. I said I was against "sticking to a test-score formula" for rating schools. The Challenge Index does not rely on test scores at all, but on test participation, a much better measure of a healthy environment where every student is being challenged.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | March 14, 2010 11:09 AM | Report abuse

Put the excuses aside. As educators you would not look a student in the eye and say "you are not receiving a quality education here because 53% of the student body are from impoverished families."

We are not discussing a district with multiple high schools where the school in question was lost in the masses. This is the ONLY public high school in Alexandria. The schools under-performing status has been acknowledged for sometime by the school system's various "leaders." In fact the Superintendent, Mort Sherman, first reacted to this devastating news by saying that this new classification should "come as no surprise" to many. Well the taxpayers of Alexandria, parents of current students, and alumni of T.C. may beg to differ.

The issue here is leadership, or the lack there of. Leadership is lacking across all levels of the school district to ensure that this type of gross educational neglect does not occur. Alexandria's foolish policy of allowing an interim principal, already retired from a neighboring district, to lead such a challenging school has shown to have dire results. The Superintendent's lack of focus on one issue, such as increasing student achievement at T.C., has added to this conundrum. And the School Board's inability or disinterest in holding people accountable for their inept decisions will only guarantee that this problem will spread into the other schools within Alexandria.

It is time for true leaders, not for excuses, open letters, or motivational high school chants.

Posted by: holland21 | March 14, 2010 12:06 PM | Report abuse

"The Challenge Index does not rely on test scores at all, but on test participation, a much better measure of a healthy environment where every student is being challenged. "

Arrgggghhh, Jay. That's just absurd. It is NOT a better measure without the score, because anyone can shove a kid into a test.

That appears to be what TC Williams is doing, which is why they have routinely made your Challenge Index (with a steep drop off this year), despite a failure to educate its black and Hispanic students. Apparently, the black and Hispanic students taking the AP tests are doing so to fill seats.

Please note, I'm not passing judgment one way or another. It's incredibly difficult to educate kids with low cognitive skills and/or low incentive, regardless of race. But TC Williams demonstrates that your Challenge Index only reliably shows which schools' kids TAKE the most AP tests, whether it be putting prepared kids in or shoving them in, ready or not.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | March 14, 2010 12:47 PM | Report abuse

"The Challenge Index does not rely on test scores at all, but on test participation, a much better measure of a healthy environment where every student is being challenged. "

That's just embarrassing to read Jay. Are you really claiming that the number of students who take an AP exam measures school quality better then the results on said exam?

Why not just make all the kids take every AP exam, then you'll be #1 in the nation!! That's basically what Bell is doing now, putting kids into classes they aren't ready for and aren't INTERESTED in taking.

I am all in favor of letting kids take an AP class if they are willing to work, even if they are likely to struggle greatly. I think that that is really important. However, there is a difference between challenging a student and putting a student in a situation where they are not going to succeed. There are kids at Bell reading at a 4th or 5th grade reading level taking AP English. You can't possibly believe that is serving the kids well.

Posted by: Wyrm1 | March 14, 2010 1:15 PM | Report abuse

Jay: I have not read all the comments so this may be redundant.... I would like to know how you came to the conclusion, "(TC is)a school that has strong leadership, exceptional faculty". What criteria did you use to measure that? I have heard just the opposite, which I also cannot substantiate with facts. Seems to me that this is a key point. How would you suggest we resolve?

Posted by: justthefactsplease | March 14, 2010 1:37 PM | Report abuse

efavorite says; "tedhaynie, are you in the testing business?" No, but I get your point. Mine is that we need a better measure to evaluate good and bad schools. Neither NCLB nor the Index accomplishes that.

Posted by: tedhaynie | March 14, 2010 2:40 PM | Report abuse

My view of TC are the result of 13 years talking to its leaders and principals and students, collecting its data, seeing its changes and comparing that to what I have seen in hundreds of other schools with similar demographics around the country. There are few high schools I know better, which is why I was so outspoken in my opinion. I usually am more cautious when I only know a school by its numbers, but this is a school I have visited and written about many times and have a very good sense of its culture. (It is the closest high school to the office where I have worked the last 13 years.) It of course has many flaws, but I am in the unusual position of being able to compare it to many other schools of similar type, and it comes out in that comparison looking very well. Compared to the ideal, it has a long way to go, but I prefer to compare schools to what we have in the real world.
And to answer Wyrm1's good question about the index, and comparing test participation to test success, the success number is mostly a measure of the family backgrounds of the students, something the school can do little about. The participation number is something the school can do a great deal about, once it senses how helpful it is to school culture to challenge more students. I rate schools, not families, and so in that enterprise the participation rate is a better tool.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | March 14, 2010 4:12 PM | Report abuse

I should add I have also been a critic of TC. Patrick Welsh, the great TC English teacher who often writes for the Post, will remember the debate we had in the paper over TC's failure to coax as many students into AP as I thought it should, since it was doing so poorly on that compared to its nearby demographic twin, Wakefield High of Arlington. But it has gotten much better on that score, and its fine faculty and counselors deserve credit for that too.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | March 14, 2010 4:17 PM | Report abuse

When was the last time you spent an extended period of time within T.C. Williams? Students, teachers, and parents may disagree with your assessment of current Alexandria/T.C. leadership.

Posted by: holland21 | March 14, 2010 4:21 PM | Report abuse

Tedhaynie - thanks for getting back to me. I'm no expert, but I'd like to see a current list of "good" and "bad" scoring schools (because that's how we currently rate schools) correlated with family socio-economic status and then when we notice a pattern (which we will), to factor that in. Why wouldn't we, if that is such a strong indicator? Then start looking at teacher issues such as experience, advanced degrees, teaching in their certification area and factor that in. Then factor in the % of kids performing at grade level throughout the system, etc. etc.

Seems like the only reason to limit the evaluation to standarized test scores is if the goal is simply to blame and fire teachers.

How this helps kids, I don't know.

Posted by: efavorite | March 14, 2010 4:33 PM | Report abuse

the success number is mostly a measure of the family backgrounds of the students, something the school can do little about. The participation number is something the school can do a great deal about, once it senses how helpful it is to school culture to challenge more students. I rate schools, not families, and so in that enterprise the participation rate is a better tool.

We can take family structure, income etc... into account when we look at success rates, obviously a school with 80% FARMS students having the same rate of passing APs is performing better than one with 0% FARMS students with the same rate. I bet a Master's candidate with a need for a thesis could give you a beautful linear regression model for success based on family income and any other measure you want.

But my larger point is that we have a basic disagreement about the worth of MAKING students take AP classes they are unprepared for and generally don't succeed in.

I FULLY agree that AP classes and exams should be made accessible to any student who wants to take them. However, you still don't seem to want to acknowledge that schools ARE putting kids into AP classes that they are not ready to take and don't want to take in order to improve their "numbers".

I can "challenge" my Geometry students to take the AP Calc exam this May, but it's kind of stupid because they are not prepared for it.

Posted by: Wyrm1 | March 14, 2010 5:59 PM | Report abuse

In none of the stories or comments on TC Williams has there been another challenge to what is taken to be the self-evident meaning of the pair of student performance metrics. If Virginia standards were as tough as those of the toughest states, would the 80% "pass" rates look more like 50%? If they would, we'd think much less of TC Williams HS, so dependent are we on reported "pass rates" around that number, and the prestige conferred by years of Patrick Welsh's fine essays and reports in the WaPo and more recently in the NYTimes.
Re: Mathews metric, the Challenge Index. Jay's known for some time that tough and effective AP teachers are willing to label a score of "2" as indicative of solid high school level learning, (earned in a college-course-level setting.) Isn't that a significant accomplishment for many students? Jay could redo the Challenge Index to exclude those scoring the minimum "1". A "1" is what overwhelming majorities of students in many classes at many high schools earn by showing up and signing in to avoid failing the AP course. They take the test,at school expense, to meet the school's needs, not the students'. Jay could acknowledge the problem and improve his index. Just as Congress can acknowledge perverse incentives in NCLB, and change its metrics of student learning.

Posted by: incredulous | March 14, 2010 6:13 PM | Report abuse

"Jay could redo the Challenge Index to exclude those scoring the minimum "1". "

I would support this. I think it's an excellent addition. Better yet would be a percentage: ratio of kids passing with a 2 or higher to kids taking tests.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | March 14, 2010 8:23 PM | Report abuse

"The Challenge Index does not rely on test scores at all, but on test participation, a much better measure of a healthy environment where every student is being challenged."

Jay, that's exactly what's wrong with the so-called Challenge Index.

Participation is not achievement. I can "participate" in the NFL, but probably won't do very well.

More kids in classes they can't handle is not learning. Without some measure of what they LEARN, it is a meaningless number.

Participation is a component that should be measured, but without some measure of the EFFECT of all that participation, it's just a way to manufacture meaningless feel-good stories about the school with high poverty and all minorities that has a high Challenge Index number. Great for the newspaper; meaningless for education.

Just to throw out one suggestion: How about weighting the Challenge Index by the score on the tests? That way schools are rewarded for participation and for showing that the kids actually learned the material.

Posted by: skeptic9 | March 15, 2010 12:51 AM | Report abuse

Jay, here's the problem. From a behavioral research point of view, there is simply no way of knowing whether your hypothesis that merely offering kids a challenging curriculum without pegging it to results benefits the students. What research does tell us generally about motivation is that effort, ability, and difficulty of the task are all related. Bottom line is that optimal motivtion/achievement is likely to occur under condition matched closely to student.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | March 15, 2010 3:25 AM | Report abuse

For Wyrm1---good point. Have you spent any time inside schools that are, as you say, "making" all kids take AP? Do so, and you will be surprised, or google my name and "Bell Multicultural" or "Columbia Heights" (same school, recent name change) and you will see my attempts to explain the dynamic. Some of those kids are ill-prepared for AP English, but they (and the school) realized that the non-AP courses they were getting just got weaker and weaker, without much improvement. It was very hard to keep it to a high standard without an outside force to help them. Both the students and their teachers say the AP standard, while daunting, is also invigorating. They are learning more, and liking it, even though many don't pass the AP tests. I am finding that in every school I have looked at which has gone beyond opening the door and is escorting some reluctant, or oblivious, kids through the door. But keep in mind that the real purpose of the Challenge Index is not to celebrate dragging kids into AP and IB but to correct the situation that still exists in most schools---the door to AP closed, or kids who ARE ready not encouraged to try it. We know that nationally at least twice as many students are ready for AP, as indicated by their PSAT scores, as are actually taking AP.

For Patrickmattimore1 and skeptic9, the more research we do the more information we have showing that exposure to the course, even with a low grade on the exam, has a significant benefit in college performance. We see that in the Texas studies I have often cited, even for students with relatively low standardized test scores, for AP students who get as low as a 2 on the exam. As for the 1s, I have met and interviewed many students in inner city schools who got 1s, and they clearly got a much better academic experience, and were better prepared for college---in many of their cases community college--than they were in the non-AP courses they took at the same time. So I think it would be a bad idea not to count ones. Among other things, it would motivate some schools to exclude kids they think will get ones, but might do much better. The whole AP story of the last 2 decades has been schools realizing that they underestimated kids' capabilities. That is where I started, with the Escalante story, and that story is still alive and fits the situation in many schools. Worries about kids being tossed into classes above their heads don't seem to be borne out by the data, or my reporting. Find me a student who was hurt by being in a tough class, and I will reconsider, but I have trouble finding such people. In your own lives, I suspect you were thrown into situations that you thought were beyond you. How did that work out?

For Holland21---I have been checking in with people I know at TC fairly frequently, and have been critical in print of some of the new superintendent's initiatives, like changing the term "at-risk" to . . . . geez, having a senior moment. I will have to go check my own column, but you know what I mean. The Challenge Index numbers show the school in the top 4 percent or so in that category, with pretty good passing rates. That is NOT the sign of a failing school, and I know for a fact that there are plenty of administrators and teachers there luring low-income kids into AP. Periods of transition in leadership, like TC is undergoing now, often produce concerns, but the community and faculty are so solidly supportive of the school and good teaching that I think they will come out of it, once they get a good principal there for the long term (the current guy was a retiree just holding the seat).

Posted by: Jay Mathews | March 15, 2010 7:22 AM | Report abuse

The Mort Sherman term I forgot is "at-promise." Forgive me. I got up at 4:30 this morning to take my kid to the airport.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | March 15, 2010 7:24 AM | Report abuse

Simply no way to discuss this issue intelligently if we resort to anecdotes. Texas study showed kids with 2's were marginally better than kids who hadn't taken the tests or courses but you often fail to report that the kids with 1's were worse off- had lower grad rates than kids who hadn't taken the exams. Also you ignore the fact that in the last 15 years that not only are the failure percentages on AP exams increasing by about a half a percent each year but just as important is the fact that we've gone from a 2:! ratio of 2's to 1's on the exam to about 1:1. So those increased participation rates are bringing in many more 1's and we know from the Texas study that's not good.
Finally, how about reporting the Fordham study of over 1000 AP teachers from last year again? The majority of AP teachers believe the program has expanded too far and that it would be a better program if there were limits on who gets in. BTW these are teachers who overwhelmingly support AP, just as I do.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | March 15, 2010 8:00 AM | Report abuse

Jay, you keep skating over the real issue that the "AP for everyone" movement is trying (and failing) to address: poor-quality regular and honors classes. WHY would you not address that issue more directly, and work to improve the quality of those classes rather than sending students into classes they are not prepared for. I'm reminded of the old saying, "When the only tool you have (or will let yourself have) is a hammer, everyo problem looks like a nail."

Posted by: jane100000 | March 15, 2010 8:52 AM | Report abuse

for jane100000--I have addressed that issue many times, and thought readers were tired of it. I am not sure there is a solution other than some kind of miniAP or IB system that sets an external and incorruptible standard for honors courses. They tend to get limp, and often serve as just refuges for middle class kids who dont want to work as hard as an AP course would demand but who also dont want to mix with the kids in the regular classes, which are usually even limper than honors. I wrote a column a few years ago that suggested the solution was to find some way to give the honors courses backbone, and cancel the regular classes. Have everybody take honors. That got quite a reaction.
For Patrickmattimore: right back at you. There is simply no way to discuss this intelligently if you have not visited or at least interviewed the people working and studying in the schools that are requiring kids to take certain AP courses, or willing to accept as valid and important accounts of what they say and feel. It is theory vs. practice, and you know which side I am on.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | March 15, 2010 4:11 PM | Report abuse

A proper "checking-in" may be in need here to see if there is fact behind the hype. Poor leadership also leads to concerns. Walk the halls one day and then write about what you find.

Posted by: holland21 | March 15, 2010 9:57 PM | Report abuse


With regard to TC Williams, you wrote:

"...the community and faculty are so solidly supportive of the school and good teaching that I think they will come out of it..."

As an Alexandria resident and parent, I disagree. Many here are NOT supportive of TC, Mort Sherman, the faculty, etc. That is because they have not earned our respect. TC has plenty of bad teachers who don't give a damn and administrators who only have a job there because of who they know or are related to. I will not name names publicly, but suffice it to say there is one Assistant Principal that I know of personally who, in my opinion, is unfit for the position but whose parents are prominent and politically active in town. The city also looks the other way when certain kids from outside the district illegally enroll in TC or other Alexandria schools (I'm thinking of a certain city employee who lives in PG County but has her kid enrolled at TC and everyone in town knows it.) This kind of stuff happens all the time here. My child was in ACPS for many years. I've seen it all. We, like many others, switched to private school.

The other thing I've seen this year, somewhat anecdotally but I do know of several specific instances, is the "top" kids at TC not getting into the top colleges. A few years ago we could count on a few Yales, Harvards, Stanfords, etc. and lots going to UVA or VT. Not so much anymore. The parents of seniors this year, and the seniors themselves, have said to me that they are having trouble getting into Virginia Tech and UVA, let alone the Ivy League. The current students I know at these schools tell me TC has a bad reputation on college campuses. It is not considered a competitive high school.

Posted by: gsquared100 | March 16, 2010 5:12 PM | Report abuse

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