NEWSWEEK recently published its ranking of the nation's "100 Best" public high schools. Unlike, say, U.S. News & World Report's rankings of law schools, which can be read as a kind of Michelin Guide for aspiring lawyers, the Newsweek list offers no such concrete consumer service. It may feed the vanity of those already attending one of the top schools ("See if your high school made Newsweek's cut," the magazine advertises). But only about a third of American high school students choose to attend a high school other than their local one. And in any case, the relevant batch from which most parents pick is local, not national.
But what's really unique about Newsweek's list is that it's based on only one criterion: the proportion of students who, in a given high school, take--not pass, just show up for--any Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate test.
For a critic of this approach, one need look no further than the College Board itself, which designs and markets Advanced Placement courses and exams. On its website, it says that AP exams "should never be used as a sole measure for gauging educational excellence and equity," and calls media rankings that do so "problematic." Education experts are just as critical. Chester E. Finn Jr. of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation compares Newsweek's system to judging people's health only by taking their temperature. "You'd be overlooking their blood pressure" and every other indicator of physical well-being, says Finn. Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution is even more adamant: "Any ranking system worth anything at all must have at its core student learning. And this one does not."
How could Newsweek rank high schools by only a single criterion, one that doesn't even measure whether students are learning anything? Two words: Jay Mathews. He is the author of the Newsweek list as well as a staff writer for the Washington Post and one of the top education reporters in the country. His enthusiasm for Advanced Placement courses might be described as monomaniacal.
In 1955, the College Board introduced Advanced Placement courses, assuming control of a small experiment in which Ivy League professors and teachers from some of the tonier prep schools had hoped to make high schools and colleges work as "two halves of a common enterprise." Academically rigorous, heavy on homework and reading, and culminating in exams that many universities will give credits for, AP courses are deservedly hailed as a great equalizer. The poster children are no longer from Andover, but from places like Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, where Jaime Escalante (the math teacher portrayed in Stand and Deliver) taught low-income immigrant students to pass the College Board's fearsome calculus exam.
Mathews, then the Los Angeles bureau chief of the Washington Post, was the first reporter to delve into the pedagogical story of how Escalante confounded the low expectations of a condescending school system by inspiring minorities to prove themselves in the same courses and exams that rich kids from rich schools took. The idea caught fire--and it continues to burn. According to the College Board's most recent report, the number of African-American students who have passed an AP exam has more than doubled since 1996 and the number of Latinos with a passing grade has almost tripled. Education secretary Margaret Spellings called this "further proof that our children respond when we challenge them academically."
Mathews's enthusiasm for AP has placed him among those who see the dilution of educational standards as a major problem. AP, "as far as I can tell," Mathews has said, "after 20 years of watching it closely, has done more to improve U.S. high schools than any other program during that period." Finn calls this claim "extravagant" but also "plausible." Loveless says this "strikes me as correct."
From this discovery that AP courses represent the gold standard in the 60 percent of high schools that offer them, Mathews has more controversially concluded that as many students as possible should be taking them. Teachers have complained that this idea is driving too many subpar students into AP courses, taking time and attention away from the students who are actually prepared to do college-level work.
In a recent exchange with Mathews in the Washington Post, Patrick Welsh, a high school English teacher in Alexandria, Virginia, said that Mathews's AP obsession had "unwittingly created an out-of-control monster" and that "image-conscious public school officials [are] so intimidated that they're putting as many kids as possible--and I am not talking about average kids who are willing to do the work--into AP courses." Mathews's rejoinder: Why not just put the average ones in their own AP classes? Because as he sees it, what counts is that students simply take the course and exam, not that they pass.
Come again? Mathews cites the research of two studies to bolster his claim that students who take but fail an AP exam are significantly better off than those who aren't exposed to the AP curriculum at all. The first, by Clifford Adelman, an Education Department researcher, showed that students who failed AP exams had better college-graduation rates than those who never took an AP exam--a study Loveless calls "naive" and suffering from selection bias. The second, a larger study based on graduating high school students enrolled in a Texas public college or university, also compared college-graduation rates of students who took but did not pass an AP exam in high school with those who never took any AP exam. Hispanic, African-American, and low-income students who took the AP tests were three times more likely to graduate within five years than their counterparts who never took an AP exam.
Is there selection bias here? Or a classic correlation/causation problem? The student who believes he has a shot at passing a rigorous AP course and exam probably already has more skills than the one who doesn't even try. But for any student who gives it a shot, Advanced Placement courses offer a taste of what they'll be up against in college. This represents no small advantage when over a quarter of entering college freshmen require remedial courses, and many high school students are known to be taking exceptionally easy courses with little or no homework.
Mathews says the purpose of the Newsweek list is "to shine a light on America's high schools from an entirely different angle," one that focuses on which schools are challenging their students to work hard. But schools do many things and Mathews looks at only one of them. Isn't that a fundamental flaw in his ranking?
"It is suspicious," he admits, "but I embrace it because it is simpleminded." The proportion of students taking an AP exam--what Mathews calls the Challenge Index--is, he says, a worthy measure because it is transparent and easy to figure out for any given school. Mathews speaks with the insouciance of a happy warrior. Taking calls from critics, he says, "is my hobby."
What would be so bad about more kids taking Advanced Placement courses and exams, even failing them? It might, of course, lead to a watering down. As if on cue, the College Board last week announced that it was looking to revise its courses to decrease the amount of "content coverage." But even this Mathews takes as a good sign, meaning the AP courses will probably more closely resemble the International Baccalaureate program as a result. IB exams are even longer and involve more writing and fewer multiple choice questions, thus answering some of the progressive critics for whom the AP-type survey course has long been anathema.
The Newsweek list is perhaps best understood as a PR stunt. Its primary purpose is to draw attention to the role AP and IB courses and exams can play in strengthening the curricula of American high schools. Despite the alarms raised by Welsh and other critics, one can think of many worse educational fads than an Advanced Placement arms race among high schools.
David Skinner is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.