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Dan Brown

Dan Brown

Posted: June 9, 2009 11:58 AM

Newsweek's Top High Schools List is Off Base


Newsweek just released their much-hyped, bizarrely calibrated top U.S. high schools list . The formula, devised by Washington Post writer Jay Mathews, is a simple division of the number of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and Cambridge exams taken by students at the school by the number of graduating seniors. Essentially, the more students that take AP tests, the higher the school's score on the "Challenge Index." The top two schools, both located in Dallas, somehow have about 15 or more AP exams taken per graduating senior.

Scoring high on Mathews's Challenge Index has created an incentive for schools across the country to push students who have no shot at passing the exams into these high-intensity classes. On a large scale, kids reading below grade level are taking classes designed for above-grade-level students. You've got students that have great difficulty reading young adult books or writing complete sentences being assessed on independently reading novels like Jane Eyre and composing analytical essays on Bronte's style.

The argument that Mathews makes in an accompanying Newsweek piece is that AP classes are healthy "shock therapy" for lower-performing college-bound kids. I see his argument that a rigorous environment can be a motivator for some striving, low-skilled students to bump up their effort.

However, the widespread pushing of AP courses on struggling students -- with rewards of high scores on the "Challenge Index" -- is not in many students' best interest. I expect Mathews would view me as a stodgy defender of the status quo while he casts himself as a bold innovator. At least he quotes one dissenting voice from Professor J. Martin Rochester:

"Having failing students take AP courses as a solution to their academic struggles is like promoting a poor-hitting minor-league ballplayer to the New York Yankees in the hope that it will jump-start his career if he faces major-league pitching."

I'll go one better on the sports analogy; let's take the Boston Marathon. If you want to have a shot at finishing those 26.2 miles, let alone compete for a decent finishing place, it takes long-term training and serious dedication. If you are short on one of those two qualities, a surplus of the other may suffice to get you over the finish line. If you've got neither -- you're not in shape and you don't really want to do hardcore distance running -- then your school does you no favors by pressuring you to sign up for the race.

Rather than the single, reductive AP tests ÷ Graduates equation, one cloaked in the politically friendly rhetoric of "high expectations," there are far more comprehensive ways to measure excellence in high schools. There is a wealth of research in this area; discarding it all does the crucial discourse on how to help students a disservice.

Dan Brown is a high school teacher and the author of The Great Expectations School: A Rookie Year in the New Blackboard Jungle.