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Students reject their school's high rank

My annual rankings of high schools were mentioned at a Town Meeting of the H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program recently. Some students said they didn’t like the great reputation I was giving their school.

Woodlawn, an Arlington County public school, is one of the few survivors of the Alternative Schools Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Its founders wanted to rescue schools from inhibiting rules and conventions.

There are no bells at H-B. Students call teachers by their first names. They create their own courses and can take two scheduled at the same hour. There are no counselors because teachers do that. Most issues, including hiring and scheduling, are decided by vote of the staff and students.

Despite the many free and easy sixties values, the test-stressed 21st century has affected the small, 6th through 12th grade campus. Many parents and students like the emphasis on projects and independent study so much that H-B has become highly sought after, with a Hollywood buzz. The producers of the 2004 disaster film “The Day After Tomorrow” turned actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Emmy Rossum into H-B students. Admission to the school is by random lottery. But so many affluent families apply that the percentage of low income students is half the county average.

Ambitious students like those at H-B embrace the Advanced Placement program. That has endangered the vision some students have for the school. They don’t like the fact that it is number one on my annual Challenge Index ranking of all public high schools in the region, based on AP, International Baccalaureate and Cambridge test participation rates.

Nationally, H-B ranked 28th last year. To some students that means more applications from people who want a top-ranked high school and don’t care about H-B’s traditions of student power and intellectual curiosity.

So, at the school’s Sept. 30 Town Meeting, a group of students moved to “stop reporting AP-testing statistics to sources such as the Washington Post.” Why? “Parents will sometimes send kids to HBW due to the test scores and experience a culture clash,” the proponents argued, according to the minutes. “This list has hijacked our image.”

Some at the meeting did not support the motion: “Colleges know us and love us [due] to the fact that simply being an HBW student was enough to swing a decision to let them in. If we fail to report our scores it is as if we are hiding part of what we do.” There were also arguments in favor: “HBW is about creating a creative individual and that is not represented by a number.”

H-B is not the only great school that would prefer not to be high on a ranked list. A counselor at a California school trying to stay off my national list told me some staffers were uncomfortable with the families from overseas moving into the district because of the high school’s high rank. Others resisted the very idea of ranking.

Nonetheless, the H-B Town Meeting voted down the motion. The school will have to live with people thinking it is the most challenging in our region.

Schools often define themselves, without any planning or promotion, based on how eagerly students and teachers apply themselves to learning and teaching. Given our worries about the general state of U.S. education, being known as a place where kids study hard is not the worst thing that can happen.

Read Jay's blog every day, and follow all of The Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education Web page.

By Jay Mathews  | October 20, 2010; 6:00 PM ET
Categories:  Local Living  | Tags:  Challenge Index, H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program, H-B students say school's top rank obscures its traditions, call teachers by first name, film "Day After Tomorrow", most school management decisions made by student and staffer vote  
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On the matter of HBW and the students' desires to keep the good news at home: Such a dilemma to have. I'm glad to see the town hall is still operating and operating well. My daughter went to (and loved) HBW before the days of the lottery. When we entered HBW, you could just hand the Principal an application and he would put it on the pile. Imagine that. The one thing parents need to be certain of when they contemplate HBW for their student is that the student can take and accept responsibility, a trait that isn't measured by testing. Before parents go through the stress of the lottery, they need to know that their student has a high capacity for self-discipline (even if it's a quirky sort of self-discipline) before putting in their application. Parents, too, have to buy into the HBW environment where students and staff have most of the say. Controlling parents are failures at HBW. If you are a parent who cannot get out of the way of your student and his school, HBW is not for you. And, really, not being at HBW is not such a great loss-Arlington has great schools at every level.

Posted by: Barbin | October 21, 2010 10:40 AM | Report abuse

Jay, I appreciate you and others responding to my post the other day, and I apologize that I wasn't able to continue being part of the discussion. Since we're sort of back on AP, I'd like to respond to a few points.

Lisamc31 accused you (rather impolitely) of lying with regard to your claim that increased participation in AP led to an increase in the number of 5s, and cited the fact that the percentage of 5s awarded has remained stable over the last 20 years. That is true, and it's also true that the number of AP tests being taken has increased (by more than six-fold, according to the link she provided). Given that, basic math shows that the total number of 5s awarded has increased. This is, of course, confirmed by her link, which shows that the number of 5s has gone from 72,000 in 1990 to 485,000 in 2010, and uniformly increased in every year. (The same is more or less true of both 4s and 2s; the percentage increase in 1s is accompanied by a corresponding decrease in 3s, which is curious.)

There are a number of potential explanations for this, such as an increase in the number of exams the best students are taking, or an increase in the number of courses offered at schools, or an increase in the number of schools that offer AP, that compete with what you seem to be professing, that students who in the past would have been kept out of AP courses are now excelling on the tests at similar rates to the "traditional" set of students. I'd be interested to see data that more clearly supports your assertion.

But either way, I think Lisa owes you an apology.

Regarding an honors AP course reflecting grade inflation or lowering of bars, I disagree. The specific intent of an AP course is to present college level material at something approximating a college level pace and a college level workload. I don't believe (although I may be mistaken) that this is the intent of an "honors" course. I support high standards for all students, but it's probably not practical or useful to have a large gap between a "regular" course and an "honors" course.

I also believe that, even if a teacher intends to teach a class at a high level, they are often faced with the reality of discipline problems and the responsibility not to ignore the needs of students at a lower ability level. High school is not college, where a professor can kick you out of class and not care where you go. Or where that professor is judged more on the research dollars they bring in than on the grades their students receive. (Which is not to say that college professors are not good and caring educators, just that the reality of college is not the reality of high school.)

If a student wants to challenge him or herself with college level material, I say give them the chance. But if that student has not shown in the past the ability to grasp difficult material at a fast pace, or has not shown reasonable behavior, then don't allow them to burden the students who have. Hence, honors AP.

Posted by: tomsing | October 21, 2010 10:51 AM | Report abuse

Ultimately, I guess I'd like to know how the students who would not be allowed to take AP in a typical school without an open door policy perform, and I'd like to know how the students who would have met the AP criteria perform versus their peers in schools without the open door policy.

Does that data exist?

Posted by: tomsing | October 21, 2010 12:38 PM | Report abuse

First of all, admission is not by a random lottery anymore. Second, the alternative nature of the school isn't something that you're born into, it's something you become by attending as a student. Third, I thought we prided ourselves on the fact that we offered a top-notch education in this alternative environment? I was under the impression that was one of the things that made H-B tick. Fourth, if you don't fit the mold, you demonstrated by probably 10% of the original 6th grade class. If I'm wrong, someone correct me, because I must have been explaining my high school experience in an incorrect way for the past 6 years...This article is just a little off.

Posted by: arlingtonian85 | October 21, 2010 9:58 PM | Report abuse

Arlingtonian- It is still by lottery.
I was actually chair of this town meeting when it happened and just a point of information here.
The motion was denied 46-41, with both the co-chair and I, it would have been 43-46 (chairs are not allowed to discuss or vote). Although Town Meeting still works effectively when it needs to, I can very safely say that this vote probably does not represent enough of the school. With over 400 students and faculty, the voting turnout was discouraging. This motion was brought suddenly to Town Meeting with very little original support (a few students). If this were an issue brought to the "masses" of HB students, then it probably would have passed. Support for this lies in the fact that another issue that was being discussed that day was something that very much appealed to the, shall I say, less alternative side of HB students. (however it was one that didnt really change much of anything, which is why it doesnt matter). This motion will be brought again to Town Meeting and it will probably pass, since the same crowd of students that want our scores reported alone tend to not go to Town Meeting unless it directly and immediately concerns them (coincedence?).
In conclusion, my observation of this whole series of events is that the original motion is a valid and valuable one that should pass. However since it was brought before a more conventional high school crowd, and the manner with which the motion was put forward was less than orthodox, it did not pass.
Had you been there at that town meeting, you would see how obviously the sides were divided. It was essentially traditional HB students caring about the school more than a test score against kids whose parents kicked and screamed or psych transferred their kids in and dont give one damn about the school once they graduate. They say dont judge a book by its cover, that, at least a few thursdays ago, could not be further from the truth.

Posted by: idontknow78910 | October 21, 2010 11:16 PM | Report abuse

To idontknow78910 -
Minor point - it's a modified lottery that ensures geographic distribution around the county.
More important point: I would love to see this come up again with more advance notice to ensure an appropriate turnout. My wife and I are alums of HB and Woodlawn's early years before the waiting lists, and remain deeply attached to the school, attending Ray's and Randy's retirements and other events over the years. (How many people go back 30+ years later to attend the retirement parties of their 9th grade English teachers, hmm? HBW alums do!) We moved back to Arlington largely because of HBW, and we knew EARLY on that our daughter was born for HBW, but she got unlucky with the lottery. Her elementary school class was granted three places in HBW's entering 6th grade class. She was something like 11th on the waiting list, even though she was a better fit for HBW than most of those above her in the list. I'd love to see ANYTHING that would discourage parents from applying for the wrong reasons.

Posted by: duck6 | October 22, 2010 3:20 AM | Report abuse

*violins playing*

Posted by: mediajunky | October 22, 2010 11:26 AM | Report abuse

Jay - Several of my friends from Korea have told me of this practice eluded to in this column of yours - I quote - "A counselor at a California school trying to stay off my national list told me some staffers were uncomfortable with the families from overseas moving into the district because of the high school’s high rank." I'd like to see the WPost investigate this story. Are our top public schools becoming "boarding schools" for non-American students? I bet you several people at TJHS in Fairfax County would answer YES! Is that fair to American students who want these public HS slots? Is it fair to the American taxpayer? How are these students - and their parents - able to get into the US and stay here while their children attend our America public high schools for free?

Posted by: abcxyz2 | October 23, 2010 6:14 PM | Report abuse

Also in response to idontknow78910:

I'm not quite sure what you mean by "I was actually chair of this town meeting," because, well, I was. You could of been co-chair (but I don't think you were). In any case I was not fundamentally unsure as to how to vote (though, as chair, I did not vote at all), though I think this column is a better outcome than simply stopping score reporting.

I also do not at all agree with your analysis of the issue- it's not nearly that simple. There is no clear divide between the "alternative" and "conventional" students. In fact, the discussion on the issue was almost bizarrely one-sided; almost everyone who spoke was in favor of stopping score reporting, but, as you mentioned, the motion failed.

Personally, I think that academic excellence is as much of a part of HB than being alternative- in fact, I think it's largely the result of being alternative. We shouldn't reject it, as long as we're careful to maintain the main part of our identity.

Posted by: Pillcrow | October 25, 2010 6:38 PM | Report abuse

Apparently I need to proofread. I was "fundamentally unsure as to how to vote," not "not fundamentally unsure."

Posted by: Pillcrow | October 25, 2010 6:40 PM | Report abuse

I love that HBW defines itself by creating individuals and not numbers. Learning should not be defined as students against each other but rather each student continuing to improve on their skills day to day and year to year.
The measuring stick we apply to education is skewed. Hopefully with the Re-authorization of the ESEA the CORE standard assessments will reflect the individual as compared to him/herself. Its about improvement and continuing to move forward.
Erika Burton, Ph.D.
Stepping Stones Together, Founder

Posted by: SteppingStonesTogether | October 26, 2010 11:36 AM | Report abuse

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