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Wanted: Unsung high schools with strong college course programs

By Jay Mathews

Other columnists spend the dark winter months reconnecting with their loved ones before a cozy fire or a richly laden holiday feast. I use that time to fill a spreadsheet with the names of high schools and their ratios of college-level tests to graduating seniors.

It doesn't sound like much fun, but it is to me. Since 1997, when I devised a way to compare all U.S. high schools based how much they encouraged students to take challenging courses and tests, that has been my winter work. I have published the ranked list called America's Best High Schools, based on my Challenge Index, in the spring.

I am working on a new list now, with a few twists. First, it will no longer be sponsored by Newsweek magazine, but by the Washington Post, and this Web site, The Washington Post Company, my employer for 39 years, just sold Newsweek, so I brought the list over here.

Second, I am going to include in the ranking calculations not only Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Cambridge tests, which are standardized exams that come at the end of college-level courses given in high school, but also the final exams of what are called dual enrollment or concurrent enrollment courses. These are courses given by local colleges to high school students. The students either come to the college campuses for a part of the day or have college professors or specially trained instructors conduct the courses at their high school.

Dual enrollment final exams are NOT standardized, but I have been giving credit on the Washington Post local high schools list, which comes out in January, for some of these exams. It will be difficult and complicated, but I plan to use them for the first time on the national list next spring.

There is no national data base, and very few state data bases, that provide the information I need to calculate the index rating for each school. So usually I contact the schools, or their district headquarters, directly. I divide the total number of college-level tests given (notice I ignore the scores) by the number of graduating seniors. Any school with ratio of 1.000 or above, meaning it gave at least as many tests as it had graduating seniors, makes the national list.

Last year 1,735 public high schools, a little more than 6 percent of the U.S. total, made the list, up from 243 schools, less than 1 percent, when the Challenge Index list first appeared in 1998.

I am hoping to find even more this year, but I need help. In the upper left hand corner of this blog you will find a way to get the form for the new list, fill it out for your school and send it to me yourself.

I send a form to each of the thousands of schools with strong college-level programs I have identified over the years. But there are always schools in out of the way places, or that only recently strengthened their college-level course programs, that I have trouble finding. Even when I find them, they may have trouble getting their data to me on time. There have also been sad cases in which I lost their data, or it disappeared in the publication process.

Here, for instance, is a list of 18 public schools that should have been on last year's list, but didn't make it for reasons that had nothing to do with the quality of their programs. When I found I had missed them, I promised to mention them on this blog. The number before each of their names is the approximate rank they would have had on the list, followed by their location, their ratio of tests to graduating seniors, the percentage of low income students at the school and the percentage of seniors who passed an AP or IB exam sometime in high school.

78. University, Fresno, Calif., 4.378, 9 percent, 88 percent,
238. Mills University Studies, Little Rock, Ark., 3.066, 54 percent, 30 percent,
267. Lakeside, Atlanta, Ga., 2.927, 37 percent, 48 percent,
307. Rock Canyon, Highlands Ranch, Col., 2.778, 1 percent, 53 percent
364. Decatur, Decatur, Ga., 2.637, 29 percent, 42 percent,
478. North Central, Spokane, Wash., 2.369, 50 percent, 29 percent,
504. Falmouth, Falmouth, Maine, 2.325, n.a., 43 percent,
1075. Fairfield Ludlowe, Fairfield, Conn., 1.578, 3 percent, 46 percent,
1254. Fairfield Warde, Fairfield, Conn., 1.419, 5 percent, 31 percent,
1275. Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Ynes, Calif., 1.395, 17 percent, 31 percent,
1332. North Kansas City, North Kansas City, Mo., 1.332, 44 percent, 25 percent,
1413. Springfield Township, Erdenheim, Penn., 1.261, 8 percent, 37 percent,
1495. Chaparral, Parker, Colo., 1.201, 9 percent, 36 percent,
1541. Lake Zurich, Lake Zurich, Ill., 1.159, 7 percent, 32 percent,
1541. Hononegah Community, Rockton, Ill., 1.159, 13 percent, 25 percent,
1629. Northwest, Justin, Tex., 1.082, 19 percent, 21 percent,
1667. Mountlake Terrace, Mountlake Terrace, Wash., 1.054, 23 percent, 16.7 percent,
1667. Kent Island, Stevensville, Md., 1.054, 13 percent, 20 percent,

This year I don't want to miss anybody. Any school that thinks it qualifies for the list, based on its 2010 data, but has never heard from me, should e-mail me at so I can send them the form. I have sent forms to all schools already in my data base, alphabetically by state through New Jersey, and plan to sent out by next week the rest of the forms to schools already in my data base.

The Challenge Index is, to many people, an odd way to measure school quality. They tell me I shouldn't be rating schools by just two numbers. They say many of a high school's best features cannot be described quantitatively.

They have a point. But I have gotten a great deal of support from teachers and principals who like the way the list recognizes their efforts to give students challenging academic experiences, without taking off points if they happen to be running a school in a low-income neighborhood where scores are usually not very high. Parents have also told me the Challenge Index gives them a way to look beyond test scores, usually a measure of little more than family income, to what educators are doing at the school to raise their children to a new level.

A brilliant team of Web experts at Newsweek last year managed to raise the number of page views to more than 20 million in just the first week, up from 7 million the previous year. That list is still at It will give you a good idea of how this works, and point you to many schools that might be what you are looking for.

Next spring it will be's turn. Do the arithmetic yourself. If your school belongs on the list, let me know. This is not the way the federal or state governments measure high schools. They focus on test scores. But it reveals strengths, and weaknesses, that many people who use and pay for our high schools find enlightening.

And it gives me something to do when it becomes too painful to watch the Redskins.

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  | November 5, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Trends  | Tags:  America's Best High Schools, Challenge Index, list moves to, list will include local college exams for the first time, new list for 2011  
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Next: Top high school should look for character as well as brains


Hi Jay, you are still missing one, Edison HS in Alexandria, VA was not published on the Washington Post list, but I believe they scored a 1.7 something on the Challenge Index last year. I'm not sure if they made it onto the Newsweek list or not.

Posted by: debs125751 | November 5, 2010 8:00 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for reminding me, debs125751. I often forget that because I am still repressing my shame. I inadvertantly left them off the local list, but they are on the Newsweek list, number 804 (top 3 percent in the country), 1.870, 34 percent, 43 percent, a fine IB school.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 5, 2010 9:19 AM | Report abuse

I still don't think this is the right measure of a "strong" college prep high school. Too many DCPS students are not properly prepared for college; simply taking these classes is not the same as excelling in content, unless the test grade reflects it.

This from a somewhat dated article, but still relevant:

"Excelling in a District public school doesn't mean you've been prepared for college.

DCPS 1994 graduates responding to a follow-up survey appeared to agree, with fewer than 30 percent reporting that they were satisfied with their educational preparation from the District school system.

"In many cases, you will see students with very high grade point averages, but their performance on the SATs does not reflect the level of knowledge that would be expected correspondingly," says Bush. "Students who get A's and B's but who are getting 300 or 400 on the math—that tells you something."

From 1992 to 1996, DCPS students' combined averages on the SATs were 180 to 190 points lower than the national average. Since the DCPS college placement rate is abysmal, it's frightening to consider that the District's low SAT average comes from its better students, who are applying to college—not the mediocre ones or the ones who drop out"

Posted by: trace1 | November 5, 2010 9:51 AM | Report abuse

Thank you Jay for your willingness to start recognizing that dual and concurrent enrollment courses are another viable option for high schools seeking to raise the rigor of the high school experience for students.

Your decision to do so is aligned with emerging school accountability reporting in states such as Indiana and Florida which similarly are beginning to collect and report data on student enrollment in and success in all three of the major types of accelerated coursework: dual/concurrent enrollment, AP, and IB coursework.

We hope that your effort to collect dual enrollment results goes well this year, and that you will ease up on the restrictions you've placed on reporting those courses as you move forward.

Adam Lowe, Executive Secretary
National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships (NACEP)

Posted by: AdamLoweNACEP | November 5, 2010 12:38 PM | Report abuse

for trace1---I think that 1994 assessment was right on the mark, but note that very few DCPS high schools gave many AP courses or tests then. In 1997, when I started counting, only 743 AP tests were given, which is about 7 per campus. And you make the important point yrself. Just taking the course does not mean a challenging experience UNLESS THE TEST GRADE REFLECTS IT. AP and IB are the only college courses we have in DC where the test is written and graded by outside experts, so the school cannot dumb down the course and not get caught if kids take the exam. I report what percentage of graduating seniors at each school passed at least one AP exam, so you can look at the list and see the level of mastery, although that is not the basis on which we rank schools. The kids can't raise their game and pass the tests unless the school provides the courses and the test. The list encourages them to do that, and so we can then discover, because the scores are independent and public, how well they did and have some confidence in that assessment. With that information, both we and the school knows who has to improve their teaching and preparation of kids before they get to that grade.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 5, 2010 1:51 PM | Report abuse

excuse my math, I meant about 70 per campus. Of those 743, 342 were at Wilson and 107 at Banneker, so the other schools had much fewer.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 5, 2010 2:36 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for your response. You write: "I report what percentage of graduating seniors at each school passed at least one AP exam, so you can look at the list and see the level of mastery, although that is not the basis on which we rank schools."

I'm wondering why you don't use the pass rate to rank schools. Isn't it relevant toidentifying a school with a strong college prep program?

An analogous problem I see is middle schools that herd kids into Algebra in 7th grade, just so the school can tout the high percentage of kids taking Algebra early. For too many of these kids, we find out later that they are struggling in high school math, and they weren't really prepared (see related article on Montgomery County's realization in today's Post.) It's a numbers game, and it doesn't help our kids.

Posted by: trace1 | November 5, 2010 4:14 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for your response. You write: "I report what percentage of graduating seniors at each school passed at least one AP exam, so you can look at the list and see the level of mastery, although that is not the basis on which we rank schools."

I'm wondering why you don't use the pass rate to rank schools. Isn't it relevant to identifying a school with a strong college prep program?

An analogous problem I see is middle schools that herd kids into Algebra in 7th grade, just so the school can tout the high percentage of kids taking Algebra early. For too many of these kids, we find out later that they are struggling in high school math, and they weren't really prepared (see related article on Montgomery County's realization in today's Post.) It's a numbers game, and it doesn't help our kids.

Posted by: trace1 | November 5, 2010 4:17 PM | Report abuse


You are from Long Beach CA, so you must know about the PACE program at Long Beach Poly. My son got a great education there.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | November 5, 2010 5:04 PM | Report abuse

If you are new to this subject ("the list"), I would recommend you read the FAQ at

it really helps to read Jay's answers to the obvious questions.

Eventhough I still do not agree with Jay's statistics (after 10 years of conversations)...I call it fuzzy math, but at least he is bringing attention to the AP's.

Posted by: calteacher | November 5, 2010 7:02 PM | Report abuse

"but also the final exams of what are called dual enrollment or concurrent enrollment courses."

Jay, I've never been a fan of your index, to put it mildly, but this "little change" proves that you really don't understand data at all. You acknowledge that these aren't standardized, but....

There is no "but".

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | November 6, 2010 2:16 AM | Report abuse

Jay, when are you doing a comparison on local private high schools?

Posted by: Sylvana1 | November 6, 2010 5:49 AM | Report abuse

I have a very simple, but effective, solution for Jay.

Give up the list. To use the vernacular, it's more than a little bogus.

The central element of the Challenge Index is based on the assumption – unverified by solid research – that Advanced Placement courses and tests convey on those who take them some kind of tangible benefits in college.

But those assumed benefits do not turn up in the research. No offense to AP teachers, but AP is more smoke and mirrors than reality.

It's time to give up the ghost, Jay. Stop making and publishing the list.

Posted by: mcrockett1 | November 6, 2010 6:44 AM | Report abuse

for trace1---I don't use the scores on
AP and IB tests to rate schools because they, like all test scores, are still heavily influenced by the average family incomes of those schools. AP, IB and Cambridge test participation rates get closer to measuring what is going on at the school---an effort to raise the level of all kids--rather than what is going on in the families.

For Linda/Retiredteacher---Yup, it is a good program. They also have a huge AP program at Poly. Everything is huge at Poly, including the football scores they used to run up against Wilson, my parents' alma mater.

For calteacher---thanks. The FAQs are my best shot at making my case.

For Cal---My thinking on this comes from hundreds of great teachers like you around the country. You are going to have to persuade them that intense academic experiences like college level courses, as verified in research by Cliff Adelman and experienced by them in their classes, do not have a marked, beneficial effect on students compared to the usual high school curriculum. They have convinced me of the truth of what they are saying, and the research that backs them up. Standardization is designed to validate test scores. I don't rank by test scores.

For Sylvana1---thanks for the reminder. I will try to do some sampling around the country for the new high schools list next spring.

For mcrockett---Read my message to Cal above. You don't discuss in any detail the great deal of research that is out there. You just dismiss is as not "solid," by your lights. There are many experienced researchers who don't agree with you. Readers of this blog will as usual make up their own minds. They can try this column, which links to one of the more recent Texas studies:
And they can also google "Saul Geiser AP" to read the work of another experienced researcher dealing with an entirely different data base in California.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 6, 2010 9:35 AM | Report abuse

Welcome back, Jay.

I wonder how you would rate Brashear High, one of the Pittsburg public high schools which were "turned around" four years ago, with the award of an $8.4 million contract to the Washington Post Corporation's for-profit subsidiary, Kaplan K12 Learning?

The US News and World Report rankings awarded a bronze medal to one school mentioned in the story, Brashear High School, which now hosts a Computer Science Magnet that draws from all Pittsburg public districts (through an application-acceptance process). The demographic is now majority white, with a 51% reduced lunch eligibility.

AP and IB scores are listed as not applicable or unavailable on the ranking report, and I can't find data on participation. The school in hosting gifted and talented family events, and getting good press coverage, overall.

How would your ranking system compare with that of US News and World Report, as far as ranking equity of access and outcome for different demographics within the school? Research in the DC area seems to be showing low-income students have better outcomes if they can get access to integrated schools.

Maybe you can shed light on other mysteries, if you have access to information I can't find on the web. Is the Kaplan scripted curriculum regimen still in place, and does/did it apply equally to all students? How has it affected participation in IB, AP and dual enrollment programs? Does Kaplan have paid contracts to administer or suppport those programs? Is it still involved in the Pittsburg district schools, or in competing charters, or virtual education services?

Posted by: mport84 | November 6, 2010 9:39 AM | Report abuse

Best regards for you all,

Looking forward to your visiting.

Posted by: fsafs19 | November 6, 2010 10:52 AM | Report abuse


HS football playoffs are about to start.
Just count the number of players on each team.
The one with the most is obviously better.
No need to play the game.

Posted by: Jogger | November 6, 2010 7:10 PM | Report abuse

Jay, can you look into the Theatre Arts Production Company School in the Bronx, NY. It was decently rated the #1 high school in New York City based on the Annual City School Report Cards. Are they really #1?

Posted by: bronx_teacher | November 6, 2010 10:38 PM | Report abuse

Good one Jogger. And while we are on the subject of high school sports, lets get out of the sports business all together. When did education turn into Friday night football games. Leave the after school sports to the local rec centers and city parks. Use that money on after school tutoring.

Posted by: calteacher | November 7, 2010 6:36 AM | Report abuse

When determining the ratio for ranking schools, why does Jay Matthews fail to take into account the fact that many non-graduating seniors do not take any AP or IB classes? They should be excluded from the denominator since they certainly are not included in the numerator. My high school was ranked 67th but each year, with a population of around 4,000, a considerable amount of lower-class students in the senior class do not graduate.

Posted by: onionglass | November 9, 2010 12:48 AM | Report abuse

Jay, What is your response to kids at Wilson (and other, similar schools that encourage AP for all) who are frustrated that some classmates come unprepared, are uninterested, and require the teacher to re-teach material and go more slowly, risking coming up short on AP material at the end of the year. They say their performance on the test is hindered because some of the kids -- who really don't want to be there but the school places them in order to push up the numbers on surveys like yours -- drag the class down.

Is it fair to the other kids?

Posted by: trace1 | November 11, 2010 9:26 AM | Report abuse

What do you say to the kids who feel that they are not as prepared for the AP exam as they should be when schools put kids in the class who don't want to be there? The latter group forces teachers to re-teach, go more slowly and generally cover less material than is necessary. The schools do this, I assume, to score well on surveys like yours.

Is it fair to the kids who really want to be there?

Posted by: trace1 | November 11, 2010 9:34 AM | Report abuse

Now if you will only identify those schools that have inflated scores because they "import" high achieving students into selective or magnet schools or have selective magnet programs sharing a campus with a comprehensive school.

Posted by: altaego60 | November 12, 2010 5:50 PM | Report abuse

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