Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

What happens to my high schools list if Newsweek is sold?

You may have seen the news bulletin this morning that the Washington Post Co., my employer for 39 years, is exploring the possible sale of Newsweek magazine, home of my annual America's Top High Schools list for 12 years.

During its long history Newsweek has been a great friend to public education, exploring many key issues, particularly those concerning civil rights. Its editors saw the possibilities of my Challenge Index approach to ranking schools even before I did, putting it in the magazine in 1998 when I thought of the list as just a way to draw attention to a book I had written.

I can assure you that as long as I am alive and capable of carrying on the delightful work of keeping in touch with educators at our most challenging high schools every year, the Top High Schools list will be published. If Newsweek is sold, I suspect the new owners will want to keep the list, since it draws the most page views of any single non-photo gallery item on, about seven million a year. If for some reason there is no longer a place for it at Newsweek, I will find a home for it. I might even create my own web site. I hear other people have done that and been happy with the results.

This is premature, of course. I just didn't want any of the list's fans or critics to think it was in any danger. We are finishing up the data gathering for this year's list, the best ever. Expect to see it on in mid-June.

Read Jay's blog every day at

Follow all the Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education web page,

By Jay Mathews  | May 5, 2010; 12:45 PM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  7 million page views a year, Newsweek America's Top High Schools list, list will live on no matter what happens to Newsweek  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Urban school sheds crime scene label
Next: How change can poison schools


I am a great fan of the Challenge Index if looked at as an indicator or as a measure of the number of higher level classes offered at a particular high school. It is not meant to measure how good the overall school is. It's not meant to promise anyone that any particular school is perfect for all students. It is merely a measure of the rigor available at a particular school compared to another one. How available are AP classes many students enroll in the many desire to take challenging classes that they may or may not do well in... these are the questions the index examines. People expect too much of the results---the index is a reasonable way to look at one aspect of a school in comparison to other schools across the nation. I hope the new owners keep this index.

Posted by: goodjuli20031 | May 5, 2010 9:20 PM | Report abuse

They should let your list die. I entered high school a few years after you started running your list. I saw how school administrators started packing AP/IB classes and cut other advanced programs because they didn't contribute to a higher score on your list. Teachers who focused on students got pushed out in favor of teachers who focus on tests.

If a teacher only counts test scores towards a final grade, will students both doing their homework? Same for school administrators.

Your list is also extremely lazy. Instead of actually investigating the quality of education at these schools, you multiply a few publicly available stats together. This does gives you some idea of a schools quality, but its hardly worth publishing. I know employer thinks so, but it hasn't always made the best decisions.

Posted by: bwwww | May 5, 2010 11:38 PM | Report abuse

Of course it won't die -- though it should. You make money on it, Jay, and as a previous poster says, it takes you almost no effort or real research at all. Your lazy "measuring tool" helps water down advanced classes, and makes classes that are NOT AP/IB classes seem substandard to parents, administrators and students. I have heard you admit that you only stumbled onto the education beat by accident, with little expertise or background, and each time I read your column I can't help but remember that admission. Go to school, get a teaching certificate, and get into a classroom. THEN you'll have some basis for taking the stands you do on education. Teaching is the only profession that everyone thinks they can critique because we've all been to school. It's just not that easy -- nor is measuring a school by the percentage of kids in advanced classes. Shame on you, Mr. Matthews. You and your list are both frauds.

Posted by: tchr1997 | May 6, 2010 10:32 AM | Report abuse

“NO LIST LEFT BEHIND” . I continue to be amazed that the “Challenge List” is allowed to misrepresented as a list of “Top Schools” . This is an egregious misrepresentation and interpretation of a narrow band of analytical metrics.

Posted by: cperks | May 6, 2010 11:10 AM | Report abuse

"Everyone can understand the simple arithmetic that produces a school's Challenge Index rating and discuss it intelligently, as opposed to ranked lists like U.S. News & World Report's America's Best Colleges, which has too many factors for me to comprehend" - Jay Mathews

Posted by: cperks | May 6, 2010 11:18 AM | Report abuse

"you multiply a few publicly available stats together"

Actually, no. These numbers are not necessarily publicly available and that is a big problem with this ranking.

In our county the numbers come from the local principals and are not publicly available. There is no way to independently verify the data.

Posted by: jzsartucci | May 6, 2010 12:32 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the good, aggressive comments. I did stumble into education reporting with little expertise, but that was 28 years ago. Since then I have interviewed at length thousands of teachers, parents and students, written five books on education and written thousands of articles and columns. My model has been David Broder, the best political reporter ever, in my view. He never ran for office or managed a campaign, but learned what was important by talking to people who did. If you contact the educators who have dealt with me, I think they will say that I have listened carefully to what they have told me and now know a lot.
The list is a very unconventional and contrarian way of measuring schools. Many people prefer to measure schools by test scores, which in my view is measuring them by family income, but all are entitled to their own opinions. I was just experimenting when I first tried to rate schools based on college-level test participation, but the 12 years since have shown that it is a useful measure. It is now employed by states, the feds, big nonprofits, and USNews has made it the centerpiece of the high school rating system they started 3 years ago. Every year when I do the list I get hundreds of emails from teachers and principals thanking me for doing it. It is not easy to compile the data. As jzsartucci says, there are no national public data bases with the numbers i need (and very few state ones), so i have spent 12 years developing my own data base and relationships with schools and school districts, where the data resides. It is public information, they all agree, but only a few of them put it on their Web sites. For more on this, here are my FAQs on the list:

Posted by: Jay Mathews | May 6, 2010 12:58 PM | Report abuse

Any readers like bwwww who have specific examples of AP or IB emphasis having harmful effects should email me at and let me look into them. I have written before about bad stuff done in the name of AP, like my recent column on the student in Kentucky who was told she had to take an AP course after she and her parents objected, and they ended up leaving the school. Here is the link:

Posted by: Jay Mathews | May 6, 2010 1:35 PM | Report abuse

Let's consider the Challenge Index in an objective way.

The supporting data seems to be truthful and individual data elements could be fact checked without a great deal of effort if error or fraud was suspected. The data manipulation is simple and clear.

The Challenge Index doesn't pretend to predict outcomes for college bound students and there are no subjective factors incorporated in the scoring. (Subjective scoring is the very worst part of the USN&WR college ranking system. Really bad.)

Within narrow limits, the Challenge Index denotes reasonably well varying levels of effort by schools and students.

Plus the Challenge Index is free. Can't say as much for other ranking systems.

So what's gripe?

Posted by: fairfaxvaguy | May 6, 2010 2:01 PM | Report abuse

Many people prefer to measure schools by test scores, which in my view is measuring them by family income,

Just remember you said this

Posted by: mamoore1 | May 6, 2010 5:52 PM | Report abuse

good biased riddance!

your challenge index rating would be an ideal candidate for a statistics class to study and analyze...

Posted by: istheresocialjustice | May 6, 2010 11:27 PM | Report abuse

I think that the Challenge Index would be a good thing—*except* that any such rank-ordered list that gets sufficient attention will be gamed. The gaming might not be as blatant as what bwwww claims happens (though I wouldn't be surprised to find out s/he's correct), but I would be willing to place large amounts of money on a bet that some gaming of it actually does happen.

This isn't a problem with the list itself, it's a problem with human nature. Unfortunately, such issues with human nature mean that the list is, by now, worthless.

Posted by: dfbdfb | May 7, 2010 12:57 AM | Report abuse

dfbdfb---good point on gaming. I have been looking for that all these years, but i have yet to discover a realistic way to game the index that does not actually produce more learning and more challenge for kids. Some of the theoretical gaming strategies, like telling the whole school to sit down in May and take AP tests they have not had courses for, would be bad, but impossible to carry out in an actual school. Parents, kids and particularly teachers would not stand for it. So as I said, if anybody has specific information about actual attempts to game the list, let me know. If they are doing harm, or even if many people think they are doing harm, I will write about them.

and for mamoore1---I get what you are saying. Let me add a small addendum. I have spent the last three decades looking for schools that have broken the iron law of socioeconomics, and raised kids to levels not predicted by their family backgrounds. So measuring schools by test scores in the vast majority of cases is measuring them by family incomes, but for some schools---like the KIPP schools---that rule no longer applies, and I hope to see more like that.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | May 7, 2010 2:01 PM | Report abuse

My thanks to fairfaxvaguy for the thoughtful post.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | May 7, 2010 2:02 PM | Report abuse

and for mamoore1---I get what you are saying.

I'd like to follow up by saying that based on my last 20 years teaching in both very rough and good schools that test scores are not really a measure of family income, but of how much the family values education. THAT is the reason KIPP works.

Posted by: mamoore1 | May 7, 2010 3:28 PM | Report abuse

Jay Mathews—I think you overestimate the ability of parents to recognize educational malfeasance. Consider that you've learned how to spot such things over the course of decades on the education beat, and before that you were trained in how to ferret things out as a reporter. Parents only rarely have either the training or the time to uncover subtle gaming of rankings systems.

You also seem to assume that the teachers would necessarily notice if such a thing was happening. I actually doubt that, even if they were the ones doing the teaching. If a teacher who was notably inferior to the rest of the staff was given an AP class? Sure. But what if the best teacher in a subject isn't that great, and the school can't attract better?

And that's not mentioning that you kind of built a strawman in your example of how the Challenge Index could be manipulated. A school wouldn't have to sit kids down for AP tests they haven't had courses for, it could merely set up AP courses that weren't taught by really excellent teachers.

Of course, by way of revealing my biases, my experience in teaching college students has led me to believe that AP (and IB) is a great thing when students are taught AP courses by supremely qualified teachers, but that it gives students false confidence (particularly in the form of inflated expectations of their own performance in higher education) when they're taught by any but the very best. As a result, I'm rather skeptical of any rating system that assumes all AP experiences are equivalent.

Posted by: dfbdfb | May 7, 2010 9:17 PM | Report abuse

"Plus the Challenge Index is free. Can't say as much for other ranking systems."

Free for who? In Montgomery County parents pay for the AP exams. They are far from free, especially in the schools where parents are forced to buy the AP textbooks (still happening) and AP workbooks on top of the $83 per test fee. And if your student decides to take the test? MCPS pockets the fee as a penalty even though the College Board refunds the bulk of the fee.

Posted by: jzsartucci | May 7, 2010 11:13 PM | Report abuse

I wouldn't have a lawyer defend me without ever setting foot in a courtoom. Mr. Mathews should take a year sabbatical from his reporting and KIPP cheerleading and have his friend Ms. Rhee place him in one of the lowest performing schools in the district. Kind of Teach for America for journalists. Perhaps Kaplan could supplement his income. I am really tired of his biased and self-serving reporting.

Posted by: pacocco | May 8, 2010 9:33 AM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company