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(or whatever World Cup game you happen to be watching) to bring you breaking news. Okay, so it started last May, when Newsweek came out with a list of America’s 100 best high schools based on Washington Post journalist Jay Mathew’s Challenge Index. Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, where I teach and widely considered one of the best schools in the country, didn’t crack Newsweek’s list.

I wrote a reply to the list which appeared in Education Week’s June 14 issue under the headline, "Ranking America’s High Schools: A Few Quibbles on What Constitutes ‘Best.'" I argued that the Challenge Index is not an accurate tool for determining the best schools because it measures only how many kids take hard classes, but not how well they do. Moreover, an unintended result of the success of Newsweek’s list is that many kids are shoved into advanced classes just so schools can boost their scores in hopes of making the list: this isn’t always what’s best for kids.

In an upcoming issue, Edweek will print a letter from Jay Mathews answering my riposte. (An extended version of his response is included after the jump-- in this blog only!) In his rebuttal, Jay suggests that I have been lured into deserting the progressive ship on which I’ve sailed thus far in my career by the siren call of a wealthy high-scoring school. Not so! I’m still strapped to the mast, and will explain my position at greater length later this month, when Jay and I engage in a dialogue to be featured on Teacher online.

With apologies to those who have been holding their breath as I mountaineer the crevasses of portfolio Entry 4 along the path toward board certification, and because I feel a little guilty at all the homework I’m assigning here (you are to read both my response to Newsweek and Jay’s response to me, with extra credit if you want to look at the Top 100 list itself), I will keep this post brief. I’ll return soon to Entry 4, which-- believe me--isn’t going anywhere.

For now, here's Jay Mathew's unexpurgated response to my article:

I am always delighted to see Emmet Rosenfeld’s pieces in Education Week and Teacher Magazine. He is one of the most talented young teachers in the country, and is well on his way to becoming the best teacher/journalist/commentator we have. He starred in several chapters of my book Supertest, about the rise of International Baccalaureate in American schools, because of his innovative work at Mount Vernon High School in Fairfax County, Va.
His commentary in the June 14 Edweek, “Ranking America’s High Schools,” was particularly interesting to me because it is one of the few fresh and original critiques of Newsweek’s America’s Best High Schools list, based on the Challenge Index formula I came up with in 1998. So it saddens me to see that in this piece Rosenfeld, usually on the side of the newest thinking, has donned some very rusty armor and joined the throng defending one of the worst aspects of the ancien regime in American education, the centuries-old notion that the best schools are those with the fewest low-income students.
Many of us agree that the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, where Rosenfeld now teaches English, is the best high school in America when measured by the old standard, test scores, which is pretty much the same thing is measuring schools by average parental income. Jefferson’s average SAT score the last time I looked was a phenomenal 1468, higher than any public high school I have found so far. It is no surprise to anyone familiar with the connection between scores and family incomes that Jefferson’s percentage of low-income students hovers around 1 percent. It also had the fewest black or Hispanic students for any county high school in 2005.
If people want to measure high schools on this test score-family income scale, that is their right. It is likely to continue to be the favorite yardstick because money is the way we judge so much in a free economy. Go into any neighborhood and ask the first person you see about the local high school, and invariably if it has many poor kids you will hear it is a bad school, and if it has few poor kids you will hear it is good.
I invented the Challenge Index because I had stumbled across several schools full of low-income students where the quality of the faculty, as measured by their efforts to help average and below average students improve and prepare for college, was better than several schools I studied in good neighborhoods where the teachers were either afraid of or discouraged from giving even their most eager average students a chance to try an Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate course.
The editors at Newsweek liked the idea of measuring schools in a different way. Each year we add some new features, such as the equity and excellence rating in response to the complaint from Rosenfeld and others that we don’t say how well students are doing on the AP and IB tests. Rosenfeld’s former school Mount Vernon High, where 36 percent of the students are low income, was on the Newsweek list because of its impressive IB participation rate, but we also noted that its equity and excellence rate, the portion of all seniors who had at least a 4 on one IB exam, was 33.8 percent, more than twice the national average.
A top 100 high schools list based on SAT or AP scores, as Rosenfeld appears to favor as the best definition of the word “best,” would have no schools that had even as many as 30 percent low-income students. Newsweek’s top 100 list has 29 such schools, including a few with more than 70 percent low-income students. The great teachers and administrators at those schools deserve recognition for believing in their students and doing some of the hardest work known in American education. The teachers at Rosenfeld’s school are excellent also, but the nature of their jobs is different because their students cannot attend Jefferson if they do not do very well on an entrance exam, so Newsweek recognized Jefferson on its “public elites” list of schools with few or no average students.
Rosenfeld argues that a school could do well on the Newsweek list if it gave hundreds of AP or IB tests to ill-prepared students who all got the lowest possible scores. Theoretically, that is true, but it is impossible for such a thing to happen in an American public school. Students, parents and teachers simply would not stand for it, and those schools still building their AP or IB programs and producing nothing but low AP or IB scores never have enough tests to make the Newsweek list. The Prince George’s County high school Rosenfeld cites that gave a hundred AP tests a year with no passing scores came nowhere near to making the Newsweek list, and ranked 154th out of all 174 schools in Washington area.
In his piece, Rosenfeld is being true to his school, and I admire that, but he has to be careful not to judge the world with a Jefferson mindset. He has somehow gotten the idea that, because of the success of East Los Angeles calculus teacher Jaime Escalante, the man who inspired the Challenge Index, there is now a “widespread notion that urban educators who can’t make kids succeed simply lack the force of will to help their students defy society’s low expectations.” Believe me, this idea is not even close to being widespread, and anybody who teaches in inner city schools or visits them regularly can tell you that.
But those few who have followed Escalante’s example have found that he was right. They do not believe, as Rosenfeld puts it, that “just putting kids into hard courses makes them smarter.” But they do believe, as Rosenfeld demonstrated with many low-income and minority students at Mount Vernon, that putting kids in hard courses and giving them extra time, encouragement and good teaching does in many cases lead them to reach levels of achievement they never thought possible, and changes the atmosphere of the school.
Simple measures, like body temperature or barometric pressure, can be useful. It surprised me that an indicator as rudimentary as the level of participation in college-level tests helped reveal which high schools were making these unusual efforts, and which were not. But it turns out to be true, and worth doing, even if rankles the most affluent schools to find a few of their poor cousins from the wrong side of the tracks sitting next to them on the same list.
—Jay Mathews

As a parent, I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Matthews. I think this educational system is full of tests and evaluations that don't tell us anything, but help pad the school's resume. If we have a school whose population consists of kids who have to pass an entrance exam to get in, meaning that they already have a higher level of achievement, and they also come from families/communities where they have all the resources they need to achieve (at home and in school), then how hard does the school have to work to educate these kids?? Not much. Take in contrast a school in an inner city, with scant resources, minimal parental resources, challenging their students with advanced courses, and not just throwing them at them, but also providing them with the support they need; now THAT is a school AT WORK, doing what they're supposed to be doing, educating ALL of our children, not just the ones who are fortunate enough to live in a community that can afford them better facilities, better teachers, better curriculums. We need to recognize the schools that do this, so that others may follow (hopefully).

Whether it is Jay Matthews or other educational gurus, the problem is that tests,etc. are given so much importance that creative teaching is difficult. As for passing the National Boards, the judging is somewhat warped. In our English department, the very best teacher on the staff did not pass. I just don't think the judges understood the upper level thinking. More studies and seminars in your discipline would be much more valuable than National Board Certification. One of our young teachers who passed now adds the board certification to all her e-mails, in large letters. Hmmm! She doesn't even have a masters!
What makes students think are creative teachers. As for SAT scores, our county rates very high, but the potentates at the top neglect to say that not even 30% of juniors or seniors take the test. I also looked at the list, and feel that there are thousands of schools who don't have the criteria mentioned to make the list, but are great schools. I would suggest that you look at individual teachers, study them for a year, and then see what effect that has on the schools.
M. Smits

Scoring and tests that clump a school, state, etc. really don't give the full picture. The ACT is required for Sr. to enter college in this state, therefore nearly every senior takes it( bright and not so very bright). Rarely does anyone take the SAT. This skews the results when compared to other states' avg. scores. Students are people and many that try to slot the schools into categories forget that. As a teacher, I can work my hardest, however, some students are brighter no matter what I do or don't do. This year's group of students were extremely motivated and did very well on the 8th grade test that they must pass to go to 9th. Next year's group I hope will surprise me but their past record is not good. Will I work hard?? Harder than ever!! Will it make a difference? Yes! Will they score as well as the previous group of students?? Only a miracle will allow that to happen - and I will tell them everyday that they CAN do it and they ARE smart. I believe in what I do. Our school will look good on paper this year and not next.

Jay Matthews had every Charlotte-Mecklenburg high school on his list in 2005. This included three high schools which were rated as low performing by the state of North Carolina due to abysmal scores on the End of Course testing mandated within the state. The reason these schools made Mr. Matthews list was simple: in CMS, everyone who wants to take an AP exam has their exam paid for by the system. There was a wholesale push to enroll as many students in AP courses as possible and have them take the tests at the expense of the taxpayer. The results in the low performing schools reflected the same trends as found on end of course tests, while the results reflected in the high performing schools substantially outperformed state and national averages. The fact that Mr. Matthews picks one set of test weighted criteria that ignores the results in favor of participation and Mr. Rosenfeld chooses a criteria which encourages schools to select only the best to take it (results over participation) simply makes clear that both methodologies leave much of the true value of education out of the equation - simply because you cannot reduce good teaching and a quality learning environment to a set of numbers.

Below I've pasted in Jay's comments to me received yesterday. The gist of my letter to him was that the Challenge Index doesn't address scores, just numbers. Many teachers aren't properly trained to teach AP courses and even if they have smart and motivated students, there are a significant number of 2's. Just numbers of courses and attendees don't spell success. Below are the emails between us.

Dear Jay:

The anti-Challenge Index article that appeared in a recent NYTimes hit
upon one major flaw in your theory. Put simply, more AP's imply better
teaching and more passing scores for kids taking them. Let me explain.

When I lived in Ft. Worth, one local high school recruited fiercely at the
magnet middle schools. The academic coordinator's come on was MORE AP's
than any other school in FWISD. Students took the bait. So smarter kids
filled Pascal HS's classrooms and elevated test scores, not based on good
teaching but on IQ. When I asked about pass rates, teachers tapdanced
around the question. That's because most of their non-magnet students got

And there's the problem. Teaching an AP subject takes special training and
dedication IF it's to be taught right, i.e., a way that gives '"average"
kids a chance to pass. Saying that pure exposure to AP curriculum elevates
a student's chances to succeed in college is baloney. You do support this
in your article ("Two recent studies found that students with good AP test
grades are more likely to graduate from college.)but it seems an

So why not publish the pass rate of each of your top high schools along
with the shear numbers of AP courses? If all those top schools can prove
they're not only teaching an AP on paper but have a corresponding number of
passing scores, thus proving a certain performance standardization, then
the Challenge Index works.

You've left out an important variable that all readers should know about.
Colleges DO care about AP performance, and it can work against you if you
have a bunch of 2's just as it can work in your favor to have lots of 4's
and 5's.

Best wishes,
Jennifer Seavey

Jay's response:
But we have done just that. the equity and excellence percentage, on both
the new newsweek list and last december's post list, shows the reader what
percentage of all seniors had at least one 3 on one AP.
but the problem with corrupting the main list order with test scores is
the point the times piece very carefully avoided. That would bring us back
to the bad old way we now rate schools, both professionally when we use
test scores and informally when we just ask our new neighbors, what is the
high school like? the best schools on such a list will always be the ones
with the fewest low income kids. Rate the top schools based on SAT scores,
and you will have no schools in the top 100 with 30 percent or more low
income kids, whereas the Newsweek list has 29.
If we stay stuck in the old mode, those great teachers i saw at
Garfield will never see their school on any top list. Is that really the
way we want to go, measuring schools by the incomes of the parents rather
than the efforts of the faculty? I would need to see the actual data before
i judged that Ft Worth school. In nearly every other school like that that
i have studied, such as RM in Rockville, the non magnet kids are doing very
well in AP. RM would be on the list even without its magnet. You bring AP
into a school in a big way, and it is very hard to keep the average kids
away from it. the vast majority of US schools solve that by not bringing it
in in a big way. ---jay

Second email:
You've left out an important variable that all readers should know about.
Colleges DO care about AP performance, and it can work against you if you
have a bunch of 2's just as it can work in your favor to have lots of 4's
and 5's.

this is interesting too, and i am not surprised, knowing you, that you are
the first person i know who has ever raised this point. i would have to see
the data, but i dont think you are right about this when you look at all AP
apps. At TJ, of course, if you take APs and have some 2s, you are in
trouble if you want to go to Yale. That would be the case in most
competitive high schools, but those kids, whatever they get on AP, are
going to get into fine colleges and do well, even if the college may not be
an ivy. They do not represent a personal or national problem.

the list is focused on the average high school where only A students
take AP. open up those classes to average kids, and sure, you will get kids
getting some twos, but the kinds of college they apply to will be much less
selective, and two good things will happen: 1. the college will be
impressed to see a kid from that high school with those grades that tried
AP, and 2. the kid will be much better prepared to survive in college when
he gets there. those kids have a personal problem, no access to good
college prep, and represent a national problem, big college dropout rate.
AP helps solve both. ---jay

This arguement reminds me of the arguement that is being made about Algebra I being a 'gateway' course to college, and the response of the powers to be that Algebra I be required of all students. And of course the outcry from some teachers and administrators that 'these kids can't do algebra.' It starts with the realization - How can you learn something like algebra if you have never been taught it? Indeed! What a concept! Poor students, minority students, even girls have been benevolently guided into easier courses by well-meaning teachers and counselors for years. In some cases, they have been flat out denied the opportunity to take advanced courses because those courses were not even offered at their schools.Do you think that an A in Consumer Math is better than mediocre performance in an AP math course? So what if they got 2's on their tests! A 2 on a AP test is a heck of a lot better than never having had the opportunity to even take the test. This attitude that only the schools with the highest scores deserve recognition is just snobbery in a nice package. Is TJ (and schools like TJ) an awesome school where I would love to send my kid? You bet your life it is! But guess what? My kid doesn't get to go to TJ because it is a selective magnet school in Virginia. My kid can only dream of going there. We passed it once on a visit there and waved at it as we drove by! No, my kid has to go to a local high school where they won't even offer basic physics next year. He won't even have the chance to take the course, and when he applies to college, he has to compete with kids who have had that opportunity. So, Jay, thank you for finding the 'gems' in public education who are breaking the mold and pushing disadvantaged kids - all kids- to be the best they can be. It isn't easy, and they will continue to have lots of 2s on their APs. But they will start to have more 3s as they get better at what they do. They should be congratulated for their achievements. They are doing what the rest of education still is not "getting". All students deserve the opportunity to learn, and SAT scores are bogus. Students might as well just bring in their parents 1040 to school and be done with it. As for the hurt feelings at TJ - get over it! We all know that your school is 'the best' and we all would love to have our kids go there if they had the chance. Maybe you can start to think of ways you can get on Jay's list - How about a partnership with some local schools where their students could take some of your classes via internet? Spread the wealth a little.

I'm with Emmet on this issue, but for a different reason. What we find in our district is that because many colleges do not accept AP courses for college credit, many students would prefer not to pay/can't afford to pay $85 per AP test when it won't count in their favor. Taking the course, however, does count in their favor when applying to college, which is why AP courses are very well-attended in our school.

What the Jay Matthews Scale reveals is the number of districts willing to shell out the money for students to take AP tests. Yes, that shows that the district/school is supporting these students. No, it doesn't show that these schools are necessarily any better than schools that can't afford to do the same.

I work in one of the tens of thousands of public schools in this country that is not characterized as suburban, or rural, or urban, or even one with a low SES population or one with a high SES population. We do not qualify or merit or attract the kind of money that would support our students to take AP tests; yet we do enroll many students in AP courses.

Of course, you are right, AP courses and tests shouldn't be the end all be all - but just one indicator of a school's achievement and efforts to bring a quality, rigorous, and challenging curriculum to all students. Again, the focus should be on giving all students an opportunity to learn advanced material - regardless of the course titles.

Yes. Tests have grown out of control. To my mind, they should be tiny and (almost) painless.

Hello all. My name is Jordan Fein, and I'm an Montgomery Blair High School Magnet Program student writing an editorial about Jay Matthews' controversial challenge index for Silver Chips, our school newspaper. I've read all of these posts and have enjoyed all of your comments. However, there is someone in particular who I'd like to address.


I think your anecdote regarding Charlotte-Mecklenburg County high schools very effectively illustrates the point that the current Challenge Index encourages schools to pressure un-prepared students into AP classes. I would very much appreciate it if you could let me know where you found out that the county pays for all its students' AP tests and where I could find that many of its high schools posted very low results on statewide exams. Thanks very much.

For all of you that are interested, my article will appear in the October issue of Silver Chips and will be online at http://silverchips.mbhs.edu/. Thanks to Mr. Rosenfeld for providing an excellent forum for discussion.

Thank you, all, for your insightful contributions to the discussion of the high school ranking system and “Challenge Index”. I have followed the comments regarding how schools benefit in the rankings by having large numbers of students taking Advanced Placement (AP) exams. However, I believe this is only half of the story.

Rankings are based on a ratio of number of AP or IB tests taken at the school divided by the number of graduating seniors. As has been previously pointed out, schools benefit from feeding as many of these tests as possible to students in their schools. However, the denominator, “graduating seniors,” also poses serious problems, and, in my view, fuels a system of educational inequity.

In essence, schools benefit by having both a large number of AP test takers and a low number of graduating seniors. Thus, a school that has administered 1000 AP exams with 500 graduating seniors (1000 divided by 500, or 2.0) scores lower than a school with 400 graduates (1000 divided by 400, or 2.5). What does this mean? Schools score disproportionately higher when dropout rates for economically disadvantaged and minority students are juxtaposed with tests taken by students in AP classes and IB programs.

This is, in fact, the case at Eastside High School, a school in Florida that ranked 4th in 2005 and 6th in 2006 on Matthews’ index. Eastside houses the town’s magnet IB program. Many of the program participants are bussed from the wealthy west side of town to the economically disadvantaged east side. In 2004, EHS’s graduation rate was 63% for the school overall but only 43% among low income students (School Matters, 2006). Other data also reveal racial disparity: in 2004 79% of White students at EHS were reading proficient, with only 12% of Black students meeting the criteria. As readers can surmise, it’s unlikely that any of the low readers were participating in EHS’s magnet IB program. Moreover, it is clear that the school ranks higher, according to Matthew’s system, when a larger number of minority students drop out.

Parents from the wealthy west side buy into the ranking system hook, line, and sinker, using those data as a way to make educational decisions for their children. It is hard to believe that this occurs only at EHS. Ultimately, however, one must ask what message this sends to kids: if you’re wealthy and White, you can use your social and economic privilege to your advantage and gain access to better educational programs and teachers; if you’re Black or poor (or both), you experience daily segregation and discrimination that have been largely justified through school rankings. Educational equity?

As educators, we must continue to question and challenge the use of competitive rankings and simple quantitative measures that make claims of equity that do not, in fact, truly address critical and complex social issues in education.

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Recent Comments

  • Rina Butt: Excellent post. I was checking continuously this blog and read more
  • Maria Coady: Thank you, all, for your insightful contributions to the discussion read more
  • Jordan Fein: Hello all. My name is Jordan Fein, and I'm an read more
  • Senor Vocabulary: Yes. Tests have grown out of control. To my mind, read more
  • Michelle Bergey: Of course, you are right, AP courses and tests shouldn't read more




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