Since 1998, I have been collecting data from secondary schools where students are unusually participating in college-level courses and examinations in the Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Cambridge programs. I call it the Challenge Index. The pandemic prevented me from getting reliable numbers in 2020, but I have enough data from the years just before and after to show which schools had the highest turnout rates for demanding three to five AP or IB exams hours that are essential to maintaining high standards.
Of the top 10 schools nationwide for which I have before and after data, eight showed an increase in college-level test turnout from spring 2019 before the pandemic to spring 2021, when the adverse effects on schools diminished but remained disruptive.
These eight high schools include the McAllen, Pharr, San Juan, Frontier, and Alamo campuses of the Texas-based IDEA public charter network. There is also the Mesa, Arizona campus of the publicly chartered BASIS network. These six schools admit students based on random lotteries, but had three or four times as many seniors passing at least one AP exam than the national average.
The two remaining schools in the top eight whose Challenge Index scores have increased during the pandemic are magnets that admit students on the basis of their academic talents. These are Carnegie Vanguard in Houston and Young Women’s Preparatory Academy in Miami.
Magnets get the top performing students. BASIS charters are primarily inspired by middle-class families. But IDEA schools improved their already impressive results despite having mostly poor students. These schools hire ambitious teachers, closely support their work, and focus intensely on preparing students for the AP and IB exams, which are written and scored by independent experts.
There are many schools on my list, including mainstream neighborhood schools, that have shown similar resilience during the pandemic, but their number pales in comparison to the multitude of American campuses devastated by what has happened. has passed. I am not saying that high standards are a cure for the damage of pandemics. My only point is that if you are looking for schools that are successful even in the worst conditions, they tend to demand a lot from students and help them achieve those goals.
I rate schools based on a simple ratio – the number of AP, IB or Cambridge exams given in the year divided by the number of seniors graduating. Large schools therefore have no advantage over small schools. The most common school evaluation systems emphasize average test scores. I don’t do that, because I think the scores are more a measure of parent affluence than school quality. To some extent, the list not only reveals what the students know, but also shows how challenging education they have experienced. The two factors are related, but I think the latter is a better measure of school quality. Having lots of books at home is good, but not all children have this advantage.
What sets schools apart in the Challenge Index is not family income but teacher expectations. Schools that do well on the list open AP, IB, and Cambridge courses to anyone who wants to take them, and sometimes require everyone to take these courses and tests. Unfortunately, most high schools only allow students with good grades into these programs. They don’t understand that even students who fail exams learn more than they would in regular classes.
When I started the list 24 years ago, only 1% of American high schools had at least half of their juniors and seniors attending AP, IB, or Cambridge programs. Energetic educators have since increased that number to around 12%, a slow but significant gain. You can find my data at jaymathewschallengeindex.com. Rankings from 2019 are on the 2020 list and rankings from 2021 are on the 2022 list.
Will Robertson, an English teacher at Corbett High School near Portland, Oregon, vigorously opposed his school’s 2005 decision to require students to take multiple AP courses and exams. Corbett was an average rural school. Robertson predicted disaster. He told his innovative headmaster that his students couldn’t handle such demands.
In another memo to the principal three years later, Robertson confessed that his assumptions “were completely wrong.” He said “after a week of initial grumbling, students began to accept AP for everyone as the norm. My response to all concerns was simply, “That’s what we’re doing here now. I had forgotten how flexible teenagers can be. They quickly agreed and moved on. Corbett was in the top third of 1% of schools on the 2022 list.
If a school insists that all students do hard work, that changes the mood, especially during crises like the pandemic. The sudden shift to Zoom classes and online learning made learning more difficult, but the goals were so deeply embedded in school cultures that almost everyone worked to maintain them.
In most schools, the pandemic has led to a decline in teaching and learning, especially among the most disadvantaged children. The fact that some schools with strong cultures have succeeded anyway is in many ways innocuous. Our schools need to focus not on what might have been, but on getting our children back to the level where they can be ready for college or work.
But it doesn’t hurt to keep in mind that challenging all students and giving them the necessary encouragement and support can make a difference. Students, teachers and parents united by an ambitious program can overcome even a health disaster. The more schools like this we have, the better.