Three high schools in Palm Beach County made the Top 50 in NEWSWEEK Magazine’s list of the Top 1,200 Schools in the Nation. Suncoast High in Riviera Beach (5), Dreyfoos School of the Arts in West Palm Beach (17) and Atlantic High in Delray Beach (37) also were in the top 50 in last year’s rankings. Another Palm Beach County School, Spanish River High in Boca Raton, made the list at No. 171.
NEWSWEEK published national lists in 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005 and 2006, in which public schools are ranked based on the Challenge Index formula, a ratio developed by Jay Matthews, a Washington Post reporter and Newsweek contributing editor. The magazine’s annual ranking is based on the number of Advanced Placement and/or International Baccalaureate tests taken by all students at a school in 2006, divided by the number of graduating seniors.
Suncoast is a magnet school with an International Baccalaureate program, and has specialized tracks in math, science, engineering and computer science. Dreyfoos is a magnet school for the fine and performing arts. Atlantic High also has an International Baccalaureate program.
In Miami-Dade County, Coral Reef High was ranked No. 20, while Broward County’s highest-ranked school was Marjory Stoneman Douglas in Parkland at No. 197. Thirty-one Florida schools made the list, with 12 in the top 50.
The link to the entire article, “Education, Why are They the Best”, the “Frequently Asked Questions about NEWSWEEK’S Best American High Schools”, and “The Top of the Class, the complete list of the 1,200 Top U.S. Schools” are located at Newsweek’s Best American Schools They are lengthy articles full of important information, that should be read in their entirety.
I am big on education. One of my favorite sayings is, “Education … A mind once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimension.” There may be disagreements about this Challenge Index vs. Test Scores, and which schools rank on the list, but I think the most important aspect of this story and NEWSWEEK’S survey is that it stressed how important it was for average students to take the tests if they were planning college, vs what some of the better schools were doing by encouraging better students to take them so they have higher school test scores. I hope you get to the “punchline paragraph” at the end. I think it says it all.
Following are some excerpts that highlight the main points:
As for the words “top” and “best”, they are always based on criteria chosen by the list-maker. The Challenge Index is journalism designed to serve readers, like the Dow Jones averages or baseball slugging percentages, not scholarship. The adjective “best” always reflects different values. Your best movie may have won the most awards; his may have sold the most tickets. In this case, Jay Matthews wanted to recognize those schools with the teachers who added the most value, even in inner-city schools where no one has yet found a way to reduce dropouts or raise test scores significantly.
He did not count passing rates in the way schools had done in the past because he found that most American high schools kept those rates artificially high by allowing only top students to take the courses. In some other instances, they opened the courses to all, but encouraged only the best students to take the tests. What turns out to be the rule in most U.S. schools, is that average students are considered not ready for, or not deserving of, AP, even though many studies show that they need the challenge, and that success in AP can lead to success in college. Just taking the course and the test mattered more than the score because even struggling AP students learned a great deal.
Test scores, the usual way of rating schools, are in nearly every case a measure of parental wealth and education, not good teaching. Every study shows that if your parents fill their house with books, include you in conversations and take you to plays and museums, you tend to score well on standardized tests even if your school is not the best. So, with the help of some astute AP teachers, he developed a scale called the Challenge Index, which used each school’s rate of participation in college-level tests like AP to indicate which schools were the most demanding and supportive of all students. It is based on the total number of AP tests (later adding International Baccalaureate and Cambridge tests) taken each year and divided by the number of graduating seniors, so that big schools would not have an advantage over small schools.
The total number of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or Cambridge tests given at a school in May, are taken and divided by the number of seniors graduating in May or June. All public schools that NEWSWEEK researchers Dan Brillman, Halley Bondy and Becca Kaufman found that achieved a ratio of at least 1.000, meaning they had as many tests in 2006 as they had graduates, are put on the list on the NEWSWEEK Web site, and the 100 schools with the highest ratios are named in the magazine.
The baseline of 1.000 is a modest standard. A school can reach that level if only half of its students take one AP, IB or Cambridge test in their junior year and one in their senior year. But this year only about 5 percent of all U.S. public high schools managed to reach that standard and be placed on the NEWSWEEK list. The 1,258 schools are all exceptional schools. Every one is in the top 5 percent of 27,000 American high schools measured this way.
Magnet or charter high schools that draw such a high concentration of top students that its average SAT or ACT score significantly exceeds the highest average for any normal-enrollment school in the country, and are not included in the formula. This year, that meant such schools had to have an average SAT score below 1,300 on the reading and math sections, or an average ACT score below 27, to be included on the list. It is, however, acknowledged this year on Newsweek’s Public Elites list the 19 schools that did not make the list because their average SAT or ACT scores were too high.
AP and IB are important because they give average students a chance to experience the trauma of heavy college reading lists and long, analytical college examinations. Studies by U.S. Department of Education senior researcher Clifford Adelman in 1999 and 2005 showed that the best predictors of college graduation were not good high-school grades or test scores, but whether or not a student had an intense academic experience in high school. Such experiences were produced by taking higher-level math and English courses and struggling with the demands of college-level courses like AP or IB. Two recent studies looked at more than 150,000 students in California and Texas and found if they had passing scores on AP exams they were more likely to do well academically in college.
Every year that he has published the lists, he’s received thousands of emails from parents and educators that both agree or disagree with his methodogy. Educators in schools with large numbers of low-income students that, like Garfield, in East Los Angeles, have succeeded in coaxing students into demanding courses, say the list has given them recognition they never thought they would get, and fortified their efforts to get more students exercising their academic muscles for college. Many parents say the list has helped them find great schools in otherwise undistinguished places.
Here is what Brian Rodriguez, who teaches AP American and European history at Encinal High School in Alameda, Calif., told Jay Matthews about the impact of AP on non-AP courses in a school with many low-income and minority students:
“AP teachers rarely teach only AP classes. They have many other responsibilities to their department, collaborative educational focus groups and as liaison to our middle schools. The AP techniques honed in years of teaching or gleaned from seminars are used in the regular
classrooms (at a slower pace, but no less effectively). For instance, I am teaching a unit on Vietnam to my regular U.S. history class. I will use the PowerPoint lecture I developed for my AP class on that subject, teach the students to take notes, use the Socratic-method discussion techniques so effective in AP classes, and then teach writing methods and tips I use so effectively in my AP classes. In addition, I will teach these techniques to our new teachers at history department meetings, prepare a pamphlet on multiple-choice testing techniques that was distributed to all teachers at our school to prepare them for state standardized testing and then visit our local middle schools to make a presentation to the teachers there. In summary, AP teaching can be schoolwide, and raises all the ships in the harbor.”