Challenging the Challenge Index
Jay Mathews is the dean of American education journalists, a great reporter and a committed advocate for making schools better. He's also a great guy. And you know already that I'm gearing up to rip him.
But really, it's not Jay I propose to rip, but his annual Challenge Index, which the Post plastered all over Page One yesterday (am I just jealous?) To rank area high schools, Jay takes the number of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate examinations taken by students at each school and draws conclusions from those numbers about how serious that school is about adhering to rigorous standards and giving all students a chance to shine.
This year, Jay's story focused on how schools in the Washington have leaped well past any other metro area in the nation in the number of AP and IB exams that kids are taking. That number has jumped by a staggering 69 percent since 2002. An executive at the College Board, which administers the AP exam, told Jay: "I don't know of any area of the country in which the concentration of AP exam-taking is so high, or where the concentration of districts paying for the AP on behalf of their students is so great."
The difference between the D.C. area and the rest of the country could barely be overstated: Only 5 percent of schools nationwide manage to hit Jay's benchmark of giving as many college-level tests as they have graduating seniors. But in our region, a whopping 70 percent of schools hit that mark.
Jay theorizes that this is a result of the decision by many Washington area schools to pay the testing fees involved in the APs and IBs.
I beg to differ: I think the reason for the discrepancy between the D.C. area and the rest of the country is Jay Mathews' Challenge Index. And while I think those college-level courses can be a very good thing to add to the curriculum of the weakest and least demanding schools, I think it's a big mistake to use those tests as a measure of good or excellent high schools. In fact, as many school principals and teachers argue, using APs as a ranking tool puts enormous pressure on schools to add more and more AP courses, squeezing out creative classes, limiting what the best teachers can do in their classes, and turning high school into a dull grind for too many of the better students.
I am far from alone in this interpretation of the Index and its impact on local schools. I've heard one principal after another bemoan the effect the Index has on their own curriculum and the atmosphere of their schools. So why don't those administrators just go their own way? Why do they cave to pressure from a newspaper story? Good question, but given the enormous and corrosive impact that the US News college rankings have long had on higher education, why would we think that status-conscious high schools, always eager to please parents and politicians, would be immune to such pressure?
Principals tell of parents who see a middling ranking in the Challenge Index and insist on more AP courses, even when that means eliminating the really cool Shakespeare elective or the uniquely rigorous European History seminar that made that particular school someplace special. The Index pushes a one-size-fits-all mentality on schools that dare to go their own way--and in doing so, win the hearts and spirits of students. And isn't that what schools should be most concerned about, not producing more numbers on more standardized tests?
Needless to say, Jay does a splendid job of defending his work against critiques such as this. And I've invited him to respond here on the big blog later today; he has graciously accepted.
But until I see more nuance in the Challenge Index--more of a recognition that what's good for low-performing schools is not necessarily good at all for schools that were already rigorous--I can't help but think that what appears to be a sign of healthy and improving schools is actually an indication of the good old American propensity to keep up with the Joneses, even when it means diminishing the quality of your own product.
Coming up right here at midday: Jay Mathews' response.
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