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Index Indicates Most High Schools Are Not Challenging Students

The yardstick for making the The Washington Post's list of Most Challenging High Schools is simple: A school needs to have half of its juniors and half of its seniors take one Advanced Placement course and exam in each of those years.

Yet, this year, 89 percent of the country's public high schools did not make the list, which was released April 18.

One reason, according to education columnist Jay Mathews who created the index, is that many schools limit access to advanced courses by requiring that students be recommended by a teacher or earn a certain grade point average to sign up.

A survey showed that more than one-third of the schools that made the this year had such gatekeeping rules, barring enrollment in AP (along with International Baccalaureate and Cambridge's Advanced International Certificate of Education, which are also counted in the index formula).

If schools in the top 11 percent limit access, the practice is likely widespread, says Mathews.

College Board, which administers AP, reports that about half of high schools have a GPA or teacher-recommendation requirement to enroll in AP, but schools are moving to eliminate barriers, surveys show.

To encourage schools to think more broadly about who is ready for advanced coursework, College Board's AP Potential program helps schools identify students who have demonstrated the ability to do well in AP, based on their PSAT/NMSQT scores. Despite the outreach efforts, College Board reports that just 20 percent of schools that administer the PSAT participate in AP Potential, which was launched two years ago.

In last year's report, 300,000 students showed the aptitude for AP but never signed up. "That waste of time and talent is rarely discussed in education conferences or political platforms," Mathews writes in The Post Monday.

The Obama adminstration also is working to expand access to college through its Reach Higher initiative that focuses on better school counseling so disadvantaged students are pushed to take rigorous courses and be prepared for college.

In addition to these efforts, if more high schools are going to attract students to AP, College Board official say high school teachers and counselors need to help change the culture within their high schools and raise expectation for all students.

Still changes are taking place. In 1998 when Mathews first published the Most Challenging list, just 248 high schools qualified; today there are more than 2,500. (There are more than 24,000 high schools in the U.S.)

This year, interestingly, nine of the top 10 schools are located in Arizona, Florida,  or Texas.  See a complete list of the national rankings here.

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