The Washington Post has taken it upon itself to rank all U.S. high schools. The ranking system they use is generally referred to as the Challenge index:
The formula is simple: Divide the number of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or other college-level tests a school gave in 2010 by the number of graduating seniors. While not a measure of the overall quality of the school, the rating can reveal the level of a high school’s commitment to preparing average students for college.
Well, it is simple. But as anyone who has taken an AP Calculus test knows, simple is usually wrong.
Here are the problems:
1. The school may have given a lot of AP tests. But the study doesn’t consider how well (or poorly) the students did on them.
2. The study is biased against public high schools that are not magnet schools. AP tests are usually taken by students in the top tracks or levels in public high schools, but by definition, most students in public schools are not at that level. So these schools will have far more graduating seniors than students who have taken the test, compared to private and magnet schools that select students based on academic criteria and specifically prepare all of them for AP tests and college generally.
3. Many top tier colleges do not allow students to place out of freshman English, or history courses, and many do not require proficiency in a foreign language. So students attending these top universities might not take 3 or more AP tests that they otherwise would, simply because they get no benefit from doing so.
4. In most high schools, students take more than one AP test. You standard issue Breakfast Club nerd is probably going to take AP tests in Calculus, Chemistry, Physics, English, European History, U.S. History, and possibly Biology, and Computer Science. So a small group of students could easily account for a high school’s high ranking if the demographics were right.
And this doesn’t even address the bizarre collection of subjects that the College Board has deemed worthy of an AP exam. Studio Art? Environmental Science? Why not geography, sociology or philosophy? There’s an AP Latin:Vergil course, but no AP Homeric Greek, despite the fact that Vergil ripped off Homer. No AP Ancient Greek or AP Hebrew, because a 244th generation translation of the Bible into English is still the immutable Word of God. And no AP Arabic, lest the terrorists place out of their language requirements at Wesleyan. There’s Chinese and Japanese, but no Korean or Vietnamese.
Apparently, if the US fought a war in a country and didn’t win decisively, you can’t take an AP test in that language.
The Washington Post knows full well that this list no no more that shameless link-bait. And we all knew they could do better, because for years U.S. News has done better. The US News ranking of best high schools uses methodology that is more quantitative, and takes into account passing scores on AP tests, not just participation. The full methodology is described in excruciating detail here. That PDF is worth reading, because US news specifically criticizes the Challenge methodology.
What this should reveal in glaring detail is that secondary education in the US is a mess. Everything is geared toward quantitative achievement, and very little to thinking, reflecting, judging or deciding. Students leave high school thinking that math and science are about right answers and test scores, not about nature and understanding and that art and literature are entirely subject to (uninformed) opinion.
No one ever understands what the numbers mean, and no one knows how to distinguish better from worse. And that, Constant Readers, is the postmodern condition.