The Washington Post Challenge Index is based on the simplistic formula: “take the total number of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Advanced International Certificate of Education tests given at a school each year and divide by the number of seniors who graduated in May or June.” The key to a good ranking is in administering large numbers of Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), and Advanced International Certificate of Education (AICE) tests. In essence, the more the merrier.
First, is the number of students taking AP, IB, and AICE tests a key indicator of a good high school? Not necessarily.
Consider a school that specializes in courses that “are interdisciplinary in design with more breadth and depth than typically found in high school,” in other words a school that teaches students to a greater depth and breadth than a typical AP or IB course. Unless the students also sign up for corresponding AP, IB, or AICE courses, the school will perform poorly on the Post Index—not for the want of a challenging curriculum or challenging all students, but for the lack of students signing up for AP and IB.
Second, quality schools must distinguish themselves by their ability to improve the performance of students across all demographic and service groups. In other words, quality schools must show the ability to reduce the achievement gap as measured by multiple indicators. In addition, there must be measurable reduction in performance disparities as students advance by grade.
In 2014, just 20.5% of black males earned one or AP scores of 3 or higher. In contrast, 66.8% of Asian males and 64.2% of white males achieved the same benchmark. The Post Index doesn’t measure if students are effectively challenged in schools, i.e., there is no reflection of support schools provide to struggling schools, if any, in the school ranking.
This column believes that Matthews also errs in asserting that “The Washington region has become a national model for challenging high school students. Many more students here have a chance to do AP, IB or the Cambridge University courses that can lead to the Advanced International Certificate of Education (AICE) diploma.” The Washington region which hosts the readership of the Washington Post has numerous schools that appear on the Index. Not surprising, since school advertise the rankings earned on popular ranking schemes, for example, see here and here. It is certainly possible that the Washington region does host schools that challenge high school students, though the Post Index is not a useful means of selecting challenging schools.
Third, a report published by the largest public school system in Maryland, Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), further challenges Mathews’ belief that his Index is a measure of how high schools challenge students. Consider student performance on Calculus AB and BC. Even though Calculus AB is considered the easier of the two, 62.1% of MCPS students earned a 5, the highest AP score, on Calculus BC. In comparison, just 35.2% reached the same benchmark for Calculus AB. The pattern is the same for Maryland and the nation. Larger numbers of students take AB, while a select few well-prepared students take the more challenging BC. Consequently, BC performance figures are much rosier than that for AB. If nothing else, the numbers hint at the value of having well-prepared students take AP courses. Just 13.3% of students at Blair, which houses the math magnet program, earned a 5. In comparison, 72.6% reached the same benchmark at Quince Orchard, with 55% at Poolesville doing so as well. 71.6% at Blair achieved the same goal on Calculus BC. Clearly, the calculus course is the preferred course for math mavens. Despite housing the math magnet program, Blair was bested by Quince Orchard where 81.8% scored a 5. The numbers hint at the possibility of teaching to the test.
Indeed, if the fundamental goal of education is the mastery and deep understanding of subject material, at least as measured by the AP exam, a better measure of preparation for college via challenging coursework would be how well students perform on AP exams.
Consider AP English Language and Composition. Montgomery Blair High School outperforms nearly all the schools in the county with 35.5% earning the top score of a 5. Is it possible that Blair’s high performance is fueled by the specialized Communication Arts Program (CAP) that is housed in the school?
Poolesville comes close with 33.3%. Both these schools have magnet programs that draw from the surrounding areas, and their performance was eclipsed by Walt Whitman which is one of the least diverse schools in the system, which had 48.3% making the benchmark.
When it comes to AP English Literature and Composition, Richard Montgomery which houses a selective IB program, took top honors with 38.9% earning a 5, while Blair with the well-regarded CAP came second with 33.3%. Walt Whitman wasn’t a top performer with just 23.6% making the grade.
Students matter and the school focus matters. Put another way, specialized programs housed in schools seem to have an influence on AP performance and participation. Lumping schools without these specialized programs with those that do is an intrinsic shortcoming of the Post Index.
Fourth, Maryland implemented a new accountability system called the School Performance Index (SPI). This index takes into account “Growth, Gap Reduction, and College and Career Readiness in addition to Achievement give a more accurate picture of a school’s performance and progress than the former set of Annual Yearly Progress achievement indicators.” The rankings based on the Post Index do not mirror the SPI.
In the final analysis, the Post Index is a measure of “the total number of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Advanced International Certificate of Education tests given at a school.”
The Washington Post Challenge Index was no doubt well-intentioned and caters to society’s obsession with rankings. However, its utilitarian value is questionable and its embrace by schools that are ostensibly dedicated to the altruistic goal of challenging every child is mystifying. Isn’t it time for educators to stand up and say no?