Washington Post Fails at Ranking High Schools

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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.

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6 Responses to Washington Post Fails at Ranking High Schools

  1. 5 AP tests costs how much? Considering how most good schools don’t even honor the AP test as college credit, what’s the point?

    There’s value in the AP classes, I think, but the tests are suspect. But ranking a high school is almost certainly a sign of madness. Are you going to move your family to get to better one? How much better? The end result is all college anyway, which is a terrible reason to go to high school.

    That said, it’s evident to me that college should only be two years long.

    • Tiburon. says:

      I took 14 AP exams as recently as four years ago. Half of those were taken without taking the corresponding class. Believe me when I say that it’s not hard to get a 5. When I can study AP Comparative Politics out of a book for a grand total of two hours and get the highest score possible on the exam, the system is broken.

    • boeotarch says:

      10 AP tests cut a year off of my college education. If all you need is a bachelor’s from Nowhere State, it’s a damn good deal in terms of money and time.

      @Tiburon- I had the same experience, but I also knew enough people who struggled just to get a 3, and enough people who failed despite hard work, to know that even if it was easy for me, for most other students it was one of the hardest things they ever did in school. So the system isn’t great, but it’s one of the least-awful parts of public education there is. There’s about a million bigger fish to fry.

    • sunshinefiasco says:

      I went to snooty liberal arts college, and they at least decided that English APs meant that I didn’t have to take college writing 101. At my college, AP credits had the following benefits: getting out of that college writing class, you could test out of some of your language requirement (which you could do with a school test anyway), and you had credits freed up to take one less class for some semesters (while still hitting 192 credits in 4 years).

      I would say that the English APs might get you out of some BS during freshman year, but the others are useless, unless you’re shaving time off college or need to free up some time for whiskey. That sort of blows, because for hard science APs in particular, I remember kids killing themselves over those classes, and those are the APs that are the surest to mean nothing.

      However, I thought that (especially hard science) APs meant a decent amount to admissions folks. It indicates that the student seeks a challenge blah blah blah.

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  3. ThomasR says:

    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.

    I think that your conclusions regarding secondary education are probably true, but it is not “revealed in glaring detail” from the first half of your article or the Washington Post “challenge”. The Washington Post challenge reveals nothing about secondary education. Maybe the AP exam could prove these conclusions? But you mention that a lot of schools don’t accept AP credit.

    Just wanted to point out that your conclusions are not particularly supported by the evidence you cite.

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