Wanted: Unsung high schools with strong college course programs
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, washingtonpost.com. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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 newsweek.com. 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 washingtonpost.com'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.
| November 5, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories: Trends | Tags: America's Best High Schools, Challenge Index, list moves to washingtonpost.com, list will include local college exams for the first time, new list for 2011
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