Monday, December 21, 2009

Jay asked me to slap him around.

Reporters frequently query EWA searching for expert opinions on pushing (I mean, encouraging!) AP classes for all students. I think the New York Times did a good job yesterday of rounding up the prevailing schools of thought.

I think there’s a lot of reporting to be done on Advanced Placement, as its popularity grows so fast. Among the topics to look at: what students are and are not getting from AP classes (high- and low-achievers alike), whether teachers are well-qualified to teach them, how the test does or doesn’t change the college experience (credits, anyone?), and the degree to which schools are driving kids into AP because of academic value or their Newsweek rankings, or both.

I like my colleague Jay Mathews a lot, but he knows I am not a fan of his Challenge Index and what’s been made of it. Not only is it enormously shallow to rank schools by a single metric—how many kids take AP and IB tests—in order to label them the Best High Schools, it also implies that Advanced Placement courses as put forth by the College Board, as well as International Baccalaureate, are the only worthwhile ways to challenge students. I have not reported on this topic enough to offer firsthand counterarguments, but the questions are always forefront in my mind.

When I first started my blog and vowed not to single out reporters for criticism, Jay protested and offered himself up. So here you go, Jay! Happy holidays! And, as always, I look forward to the Mathews Christmas letter.


  1. I'd use the word "bogus" instead of (or along with) "shallow." And I like Jay too, but the the "challenge index" is false and misleading.

  2. Wait - is this your "slapping around"?

  3. That's it? Geez, I slap Jay around much harder than that, especially about his IB bias! -Lisa

  4. Thanks. I needed that. I was happy the Times opened the debate, but frustrated by the shallowness of many of the responses. Of course AP (and IB) are full of flaws, like all human enterprises. The question the Times commenters seemed to avoid, the most important question for me, is: okay, you don't like AP. So tell me what we have for these kids you don't think should be taking AP that will, right now, be as good for them educationally? People have many big dreams about what we could do instead, but while we are waiting for them to come true, no AP means back to watered down honors courses, or worse. There is some data out of Texas indicating that the one other possible option, dual enrollment courses at local community colleges, also do not prepare as well for college. The best approach is to improve the AP and IB courses and tests we have, which is what the College Board is trying to do right now in a significant way, and what great AP teachers do every day.

  5. Public school administrators are simple people. They can understand the Challenge Index and press for conformity. They cannot accomplish much else and most have no feel for curriculum anyway.

    You may see all of the nuances, but the Newsweek Challenge Index offers the HIGHEST EXPECTED VALUE, which is equal to (Probability of Success) * (Value of Success). Now that's real math, and all of the bellyaching doesn't offer a higher expectation. No one, except maybe Core Knowledge, has a better, more attainable, more understandable method to improve schools.

    Support the Index. Other suggestions don't offer higher expected value. 'nuff said chattering class.