Dagger readers may remember a lively discussion awhile back, sparked by the news that C. Milton Wright and Fallston high schools had made Newsweek Magazine’s list of “America’s Top High Schools”. The discussion focused on Newsweek’s controversial rankings, which were based on a formula called “The Challenge Index” – determined by dividing the number of Advanced Placement or other college-level tests given at a school by the number of graduating seniors. In other words, the “top high schools” were measured, not by student achievement, but by test participation rate.
Newsweek has since dropped this formula as the exclusive method for rating high schools, and now includes performance factors in their overall rankings. While no Harford County high schools made the Newsweek list this year, The Challenge Index is still published by The Washington Post, and Bel Air, C. Milton Wright and Patterson Mill high schools have all made the list for 2011.
Devised more than 10 years ago by The Post’s education reporter and columnist Jay Matthews, The Challenge Index rankings are intended to recognize schools that open up AP classes and exams to more than just the top students. Matthews explains his reasoning in an online FAQ: “[college-level tests] are important because they give average students a chance to experience the trauma of heavy college reading lists and long, analytical college examinations. Research has found that even low-performing students who got only a 2 on an AP test did significantly better in college than similar students who did not take AP.”
Why not use test scores in the rankings? Matthews publishes performance data for the schools that make The Challenge Index rankings, but explains that he doesn’t use test scores as a factor in the rankings because:
“Average test scores are one valid measure of a school. But those averages are so influenced by the family backgrounds of the students that if you ranked schools by average parental income instead of test scores you would get pretty much the same result.”
Below is the press release from Harford County Public Schools announcing the results for 2011.
Three Harford County public high schools, Patterson Mill, C. Milton Wright and Bel Air, are part of an elite group of schools nationwide that are included in the “2011 America’s Top High Schools” list compiled by The Washington Post. This recognition places these high schools in the top seven percent of the approximately 27,000 U.S. public high schools in the country rated this way.
The high school challenge, known as the “Challenge Index,” identifies schools that offer a rigorous instructional program based on high numbers of students taking either Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) tests. The Challenge Index, which was devised by Post reporter Jay Matthews, divides the number of AP or IB tests taken by all students at a school by the number of graduating seniors. The resulting ratio score is used to rank schools in the survey.
“We are extremely proud of our three high schools for this recognition, and we are equally as proud of our staff for their dedication to the success of our students,” said Superintendent Robert M. Tomback. “We are committed to encouraging our students to reach their highest level of achievement and preparing them for college.”
The total number of AP participants and the number of tests given at Harford County high schools has increased each year since 2005. Last school year, participation in AP assessments increased from 1,986 in 2009 to 2,328 in 2010, a more than 17 percent increase. At the same time, achievement on AP exams continued to increase from 1,249 assessments receiving passing scores (3-5) in 2009 to 1,423 passing scores in 2010, a nearly 14 percent increase.
Patterson Mill, C. Milton Wright and Bel Air high schools accounted for more than 50 percent of AP exams taken in Harford County in 2010. As a part of school improvement efforts, schools are accelerating student performance to ensure greater participation in AP courses. In particular, the school system continues to address its goal of increasing minority student participation and success in all AP courses.
Patterson Mill, C. Milton Wright and Bel Air high schools will be recognized by the Board of Education of Harford County at a Board meeting when the school year resumes in the fall.
The complete list of The Post’s top high schools may be found at http://apps.washingtonpost.com/highschoolchallenge/schools/search/.
For more information about AP participation and passing rates at all Harford County Public Schools, click here.