Best High Schools: The Reaction

Earlier this week we released our list of NEWSWEEK's Top Public High Schools. Every year, the list is compiled by Washington Post education columnist Jay Mathews, who uses an admittedly simple formula: if you divide the number of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Cambridge exams by the number of graduating seniors in a given class, you get a rough indication of the overall academic quality of the institution—what Mathews calls his Challenge Index. (Article continued below...)

That number is used to rank all the schools that have achieved a ratio of at least 1.000 (which represent the top 6 percent of schools nationwide). Aside from culling together the top schools in the country, the index also brings together something else: all the teachers in this country who think that Mathews's formula is too simple. On blogs, talk shows and newspaper op-eds, many have argued against our list, saying that basing a school's merit on its magnitude of AP exams means little. Some even argue it may worsen our academic system, as school districts and teachers prematurely force students into AP exams in hopes of increasing their national rank.

To accompany his ranking, Mathews explained his methodology, even including a dissenting voice. "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," says J. Martin Rochester, a professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who writes on education. "It is not just a leap of faith but a leap of logic." In the same methods Q&A, Mathews himself explains why several of the schools on our list actually have high dropout rates and low average test scores: "My response is that these are all schools with lots of low-income students and great teachers who have found ways to get them involved in college-level courses," he writes.

Explanations like that weren't enough to satiate the concerns of many educators who put little stock in the Challenge Index. "When you have a highly publicized ranking system that overtly rewards just taking a class, you encourage a lot of students to take AP who it may not be right for," says Dan Brown, an AP English teacher in D.C. and the author of The Great Expectations School. "The classes become unbeneficial to students who want to give their all [in the courses]." In a piece he wrote for The Huffington Post about our rankings, Brown adds that many students with below-grade reading levels are being assessed on work they may not be best prepared for, and that this only furthers the idea that the College Board is the go-to organization for creating rigor in school. "The Challenge Index unduly rewards schools for buying into a few specific programs that have a huge interest in keeping business booming," he tells NEWSWEEK.

He's not the first critic—and he certainly won't be the last. In 2005, Washington Post education writer Patrick Welsh debated his colleague, arguing that Mathews's system caused some kids to be pushed out of honors into AP courses only because of the Challenge Index. "Fairfax County [Md.] teachers I've talked to say you have singlehandedly destroyed their traditional college-prep honors programs and are responsible for watering down their AP courses," Welsh told Mathews, who argued that the students "pushed" into the county's AP courses have actually contributed to a higher pass rate on the exams than ever before. At the time, Mathews argued that "the AP teachers I speak to say average students are better off in their classes, struggling to reach a college standard rather than sitting in a regular class being given good grades for much less challenging work." These days, he uses Fairfax County—which allows any student to enroll in AP courses—as evidence of the AP program's success.

Even in Dallas, where our top two schools are, there's been skepticism. In the same paper that shared the good news, an op-ed in The Dallas Morning News reported on the school district's increased dropout rate. And Tawnell Hobbs, the paper's education reporter, offered her own criticism of NEWSWEEK's numbers game. "I have to be honest, I don't put much stake in Newsweek's rankings," she wrote on her education blog. "One single number determines it. It doesn't take into account many other factors—SAT scores, dropout rates, scores on state tests. Educators say [it's] not a complete picture of how a school is doing … but schools covet having a top spot."

Mathews is the first to admit that responding to criticism is something he loves. Often, when educators e-mail him complaining about his system, he gets back to them asking for a better metric. "The most valid criticism I hear is that you can't judge a school by one number," he says. "But numbers are useful, and I've been putting out a challenge for a new number for 11 years; not one person has come back to me."