The Challenge Index

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Below is an article on the debut of the Challenge Index, published on March 22, 1998, in The Washington Post Magazine.

By Jay Mathews

Nearly every professional educator will tell you that ranking schools is counterproductive, unscientific, hurtful and wrong. But I am going to do it anyway, not because I believe my system is scientifically infallible, but because I think it provides insight into one of the most significant emerging issues in American education: whether our high schools are working hard enough to challenge and elevate students. Just last month, the results of a new international exam in math and science showed that American 12th-graders ranked close to last among the 21 nations that participated. Those dismal results provoked dismay among educators and politicians and prompted Education Secretary Richard W. Riley to declare, “We need to have higher expectations for our students.” I could not agree more. That’s why the reporting and analysis that follow focus not on how good area students are — the way others often rate schools — but on how hard each school tries to make each student better.

The importance of challenging students, and the reluctance of many public schools to do so, first attracted my attention in 1986, when a quiet boy with square features and short brown hair named Greg Rusu tried to enroll in an Advanced Placement calculus class at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles. I was working as a reporter in Los Angeles at the time and became interested in his story.

Rusu’s salient trait was his stubbornness, a gift from a father who had gotten the family out of Romania by going on a hunger strike. Rusu wanted to take calculus, even though he would only be a junior and would first have to survive a summer of trigonometry. His counselor and his computer science teacher advised against it. Such a lethal dose of mathematics, they said, would leave no time for his other courses, ruin his grade point average, kill his chances for a college scholarship and anger his parents. The calculus teacher, Jaime Escalante, later the hero of the film “Stand and Deliver,” had a different reaction. He listened to the boy’s request while correcting another student’s paper. After Rusu was finished, the teacher said, “Yup,” and handed him the necessary form. Rusu eventually received the highest possible grade on the AP calculus test and was accepted at a fine engineering school.

A decade later, having visited dozens of other high schools across the country, I am convinced that students like Greg Rusu are still receiving little encouragement from most of their teachers and counselors. As often as not they are shunted off to courses that are too easy and, for many, too boring.

This tendency reveals itself in the way American high schools handle their Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) courses. Both programs administer difficult examinations to students who have completed high school versions of college-level courses, from AP economics to IB social anthropology. A few teachers and schools use the courses and the tests to motivate students who would ordinarily be given much lighter fare. But most educators do not like to push children that hard. The reasons are varied and complex, and illustrate, among other things, I think, the corrosive effect of ill-considered kindness in American schools.

This is, in some respects, a crisis of American democracy. The AP and IB tests were born of supremely elitist motives — to ease the ennui of prep school students and diplomats’ children. But teachers at a few inner city schools have hammered this gilded tool into a device for enlivening and deepening the education at schools filled with ill-prepared and unmotivated students. What is puzzling is the failure of many suburban schools to democratize their best courses in the same way.

Some teachers say they fear that students asked to do the hard work these courses require will lose interest altogether and drop out. Some teachers say that parents are likely to protest too many demands, and assume their child will get a bad grade and hurt his or her college chances. Some teachers, already drained by long hours teaching ordinary classes, do not think they have the energy to pull students up to an AP or IB level. Some principals and department heads say they do not have enough teachers willing to be judged by their students’ performance on examinations written by national and international organizations over which they have no control.

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