Newsweek; U.S. Edition - March 30, 1998
CLASS STRUGGLE THE TOP 100* HIGH SCHOOLS
JAY MATHEWS, an education writer for The Washington Post, is the author of ``Class Struggle: What's Wrong (and Right) with America's Best Public High Schools'' (312 pages. Times Books. $25).
In a provocative new book, a veteran education writer rates public high schools by their willingness to give as many students as possible the opportunity to do the most advanced work. His conclusion: kids will strive for the best if they get the chance.
BRIAN LEVITE'S FIRST TWO years at Mamaroneck High School in affluent Westchester County, N.Y., did not show him in the best light. He was more interested in Rollerblading and science fiction than he was in mathematics and science. World history was a bore. But he was determined to make his mark in his junior year by taking Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. history, one of a series of rigorous courses that have become the high-water mark of American public education. Levite --a political junkie--anticipated a great academic adventure. But at Mamaroneck, like many other high schools, AP courses are treated like the best family china, brought out only for special guests. Despite Levite's eagerness to learn (a quality most educators consider the key to any academic success), he was forced to take a 90-minute entrance test, and he flunked. He had a 101-degree fever that day and did not feel up to questions on feminism in the French Revolution. Levite was told to take the regular history course, which was so easy he breezed through with a grade of 95 out of 100.
This is gatekeeping--faculty-room jargon for offering hard courses only to the best students and finding something easy for everyone else. It occurs in most American high schools and is usually justified, like bunny slopes for uncertain skiers, as a way to save ill-prepared students from crashing into mountainous reading lists. Yet visits to 75 schools and data from thousands of others suggest that the practice is severely misused and overused, and can be blamed for much of the low motivation and achievement spotlighted in a recently released international survey of high-school math and science skills.
Educators have complained for years about low expectations in American schools, and the new Third International Math and Science Study, which put U.S. 12th graders well below average, seemed to bear out that concern. Usually, much of the attention is focused on the feeble standards of underprivileged schools, where students rarely get a chance to take the most demanding courses. It came as a shock to visit dozens of the nation's best secondary schools, places that hardly ever come under attack because they seem in such fine shape. I found that many of them are just as likely as less privileged schools to steer capable students away from courses that would prepare them to score well in these international comparisons.
My estimate is that at least 25,000 students are told each year that they cannot take the AP courses they want. I also think that at least an additional 75,000 students--and probably far more--have the ability to do well in such courses but do not ask to enroll because no one encourages them.
Advanced Placement tests were designed more than 40 years ago by the College Board for ambitious students who wished to earn college credit in secondary school. They were first given only in private schools and the most competitive public schools, but by 1996 more than half of all U.S. high schools had joined the program, giving 843,423 AP tests in 18 subjects to 537,428 students. To identify those schools that try to expose the most students to the highest levels of learning, I have devised a ratio that measures the concentration of AP tests at each school. The results are the basis of my Challenge Index, which ranks public schools, except for the few elite institutions that select more than half their students through examinations or other academic criteria. This is a perilous exercise. Nearly every professional educator will tell you that rating one school against another is unscientific, dangerous and mean. Every likely criterion you might use in such an evaluation is going to be narrow and distorted. A school that stumbles one year may be better the next.
I accept all those arguments. And yet, as a parent, I think that in some circumstances a ranking system, no matter how limited, can be useful. Many highly regarded schools are not challenging students nearly as much as they claim to be, and some schools are doing a much better job of involving students in difficult courses than anyone would expect. Darien High School, for instance, is located in an affluent Connecticut town where the parental incomes and educational backgrounds should guarantee the most demanding schools anywhere. But the Darien High index in 1996, 0.893, was substantially below those of hundreds of other schools in equally well-endowed suburbs, and below many schools that do not come close to having Darien's advantages. As often happens at schools that try to make themselves look good to colleges, some Darien teachers apparently do not encourage all AP students to take the AP test. This may keep the percentage of students passing the test quite high, but it denies many students a key motivation--a college-level examination written by national experts that a student approaches with the nervous anticipation of a pole vaulter.
This reluctance to stretch young minds has many roots. Some teachers say that students asked to do hard work will lose interest in school altogether and drop out. Some complain that parents protest difficult lessons, especially when potentially bad grades threaten college chances. Some teachers, already drained by long hours teaching ordinary classes, do not think they have the energy to pull students up to AP level. Some principals and department heads wonder if they have enough teachers who are willing to be judged by their students' performance on national examinations. Many educators say the AP and the much less common but similarly challenging International Baccalaureate (IB) tests should be reserved for the very best students. Less gifted students ask simplistic questions and slow the pace, they say, cheating the quicker minds for whom the tests were originally designed.
Some schools high on the Challenge Index list are so well stocked with razor-sharp students that they can limit access to the AP courses and tests and still seem more challenging than schools such as Stevenson in Lincolnshire, Ill., or Saratoga near San Jose, Calif., that open the courses to everyone. Keith Neigel, the principal at New Jersey's Millburn High, No. 2 on the list, said his faculty turns down dozens of AP applicants every year. He said the school fears that if too many marginal students take the test, they will lower the school's pass rate (last year nearly 90 percent, 35 points above the national average) and tarnish its reputation with colleges.
At Scarsdale High in New York, No. 7 on the list, English AP courses are open only to students with strong teacher recommendations or good scores on a qualifying test. At New Trier High in Winnetka, Ill., students are labeled their first year as AP material or not, and shedding the no-AP designation is tough. Parents who demand that a child be allowed to take an AP course must sign a statement saying they have disregarded advice and ``assume full responsibility for the consequences of this placement.''
Such widespread allegiance to an academic pecking order explains the national attention focused on Jaime Escalante, a notorious anti-gatekeeper and AP calculus teacher who inspired the 1987 film ``Stand and Deliver.'' He was so contemptuous of prerequisites that once, with just a grunt of assent, he let into calculus a boy who lacked the required second year of algebra and had been warned by his counselor against taking Escalante's class. The student did well in the course, scored the highest grade on the examination and made Escalante even more opposed to curricular barriers. He found that students learned more, and felt better about their futures, when they stuck with AP despite low scores.
His success produced some converts. Walter Dewar paid his own air fare to Los Angeles to videotape an Escalante class and then completely overhauled the mathematics program at Newman Smith High outside Dallas. Dewar and teacher Elizabeth Garza cultivated every minority student who had at least a B-minus in algebra. They held after-school prep sessions and calculus nights at a local pizza parlor. By 1996 Dewar had 169 students taking AP calculus, including more than 10 percent of all the girls in Texas who passed the more difficult of the two AP calculus tests and more than 10 percent of African-Americans who passed either examination.
At Shaker Heights High near Cleveland, principal Jack Rumbaugh created a club for high-achieving black students, the MAC (Minority Achievement Committee), and set them to work persuading ninth and 10th graders to get ready for AP. The number of AP test takers soared; last year, 84 per- cent passed.
For a few years, Scarsdale High history teacher Eric Rothschild risked his health and sanity by giving the school's regular American-history students a chance to prepare for the AP test. On his own time, he wrote and graded extra essay assignments for them. He held special weekend preparation sessions. One year 51 of the regular history students took the test and got the equivalent of 15 B's, 21 C's and 15 D's. But Scarsdale officials concluded that opening additional AP classes would be too much of a strain on its resources.
Here and there, a few students are beginning to see gatekeeping as pedagogical malpractice. In 1995 Kerry Constabile at Mamaroneck High responded in an extraordinary way to a refusal to let her take AP American history: she assigned herself the course. Constabile (now at Reed College in Portland, Ore.) bought one of the commercial guides to AP history, with sample tests. She found information on the Internet. Students in the AP course gave her copies of their exercises. Friends shook their heads in amazement when they found her in the library, doing homework no teacher had told her to do. When she passed the AP test, classmate David Abramowicz wrote a needling editorial in the school paper: ``If our school really wants students to achieve their maximum potential, then it shouldn't deny them the opportunity to learn more and work harder.''
Assistant principal Michael Roush began to rethink the issue. Perhaps young intellects were more capable than the school gave them credit for. ``When teachers and administrators question their beliefs and begin to act differently, the results can be amazing,'' he said.
Educators waving students away from the most taxing courses mean no harm. But their kindness is akin to keeping a tottering infant from taking his first dangerous steps. As every parent knows, babies have to stumble before they can learn to walk.
High scores on AP exams can earn kids college credit. Nothing is more prestigious for their high schools.
*Public schools are ranked according to a ratio devised by Jay Mathews: the number of Advanced Placement tests taken at the school in 1996 divided by its graduating seniors. For a list of every school scoring more than 1.000, see NEWSWEEK ONLINE on America Online (keyword: Newsweek).
1 Wheatley School Old Westbury, N.Y. 2.862
2 Millburn, N.J. 2.744
3 Jericho Senior, N.Y. 2.716
4 Richard Montgomery, Rockville, Md. 2.464
5 Brighton, Rochester, N.Y. 2.418
6 Indian Hill, Cincinnati 2.400
7 Scarsdale, N.Y. 2.396
8 H-B Woodlawn, Arlington, Va. 2.342
9 Manhasset, N.Y. 2.256
10 Greeley, Chappaqua, N.Y. 2.207
11 North Hollywood, Calif. 2.198
12 Henry M. Gunn, Palo Alto, Calif. 2.075
13 Saratoga, Calif. 2.057
14 Andover, Bloomfld. Hills, Mich. 2.033
15 Palos Verdes Peninsula, Rolling Hills Estates, Calif. 1.998
16 A. Stevenson, Lincolnshire, Ill. 1.994
17 University, Irvine, Calif. 1.986
18 Princeton, N.J. 1.972
19 La Canada, Calif. 1.970
20 Sunny Hills, Fullerton, Calif. 1.968
21 Bronxville, N.Y. 1.963
22 La Jolla, Calif. 1.961
23 J. Miller-Great Neck North, N.Y. 1.934
24 Irondequoit, N.Y. 1.920
25 Eastside, Gainesville, Fla. 1.896
26 Pittsford Mendon, Pittsford, N.Y. 1.876
27 Miami Palmetto Senior, Fla. 1.856
28 Lyndon B. Johnson, Austin, Tex. 1.853
29 Orange, Pepper Pike, Ohio 1.849
30 New Trier, Winnetaka, Ill. 1.841
31 Weston, Mass. 1.827
32 Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y. 1.826
33 Edina, Minn. 1.826
34 Chagrin Falls, Ohio 1.821
35 Tappan Zee, Orangeburg, N.Y. 1.801
36 Mountain Brook, Ala. 1.786
37 Ridge, Basking Ridge, N.J. 1.780
38 Southside, Greenville, S.C. 1.771
39 Mira Costa, Manhattan Beach, Calif. 1.738
40 Langley, McLean, Va. 1.716
41 William G. Enloe, Raleigh, N.C. 1.702
42 Valley Stream South, N.Y. 1.696
43 Hillsborough, Tampa, Fla. 1.689
44 North Hunterdon, Annandale, N.J. 1.685
45 Highland Park, Ill. 1.666
46 Westwood, Mass. 1.659
47 L.A. Center for Enriched Studies, Calif. 1.658
48 Amherst Central, N.Y. 1.655
49 Fort Myers, Fla. 1.650
50 Duxbury, Mass. 1.622
51 Charles Jordan, Durham, N.C. 1.620
52 Rye, N.Y. 1.619
53 Coral Gables Senior, Fla. 1.583
54 Edgemont, Scarsdale, N.Y. 1.580
55 Pittsford Sutherland, N.Y. 1.578
56 Shaker Heights, Ohio 1.571
57 Roslyn, Roslyn Heights, N.Y. 1.555
58 Great Neck South, N.Y. 1.551
59 Grosse Pointe South, Mich. 1.550
60 William Hall, W. Hartford, Conn. 1.547
61 Fountain Valley, Calif. 1.547
62 Oceanside, N.Y. 1.535
63 Williamsville South, Buffalo, N.Y. 1.518
64 Solon, Ohio 1.515
65 Miramonte, Orinda, Calif. 1.505
66 Wayland, Mass. 1,500
67 Lincoln, Tallahassee, Fla. 1.478
68 Highland Park, Texas 1.475
69 Westwood, Austin, Texas 1.469
70 Van Nuys, Calif. 1.458
71 Lake Brantley, Fla. 1.458
72 Ardsley, N.Y 1.452
73 Farmington, Conn. 1.448
74 Mamaroneck, N.Y. 1.433
75 Port Richmond, Staten Isl., N.Y. 1.432
76 John F. Kennedy, Bellmore, N.Y. 1.430
77 Glen Ridge, N.J. 1.425
78 Niles North, Skokie, Ill. 1.423
79 Edison, Fresno, Calif. 1.418
80 Hewlett, N.Y. 1.418
81 Bethlehem Central, Delmar, N.Y. 1.402
82 Lewiston-Porter Senior, N.Y. 1.395
83 Memorial Senior, Houston, Tex. 1.394
84 Palo Alto, Calif. 1.390
85 Plant, Tampa, Fla. 1.376
86 Glenbrook North, Northbrk., Ill. 1.371
87 Byram Hills, Armonk, N.Y. 1.370
88 Clovis West, Calif. 1.370
89 Lynbrook, San Jose, Calif. 1.364
90 Plainview-Old Bethpage JFK, N.Y. 1.358
91 Nova, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. 1.357
92 Park City, Utah 1.356
93 E.C. Glass, Lynchburg, Va. 1.353
94 Kings Park, N.Y. 1.345
95 Benjamin Cardozo, Queens, N.Y. 1.336
96 Asheville, N.C. 1.335
97 Long Beach Polytechnic, Calif. 1.334
98 Plano Senior, Tex. 1.333
99 Westlake, Westlake Village, Calif. 1.330
100 McLean, Va 1.324
AP-TO-STUDENT RATIO IS AN INDICATOR OF A SCHOOL'S EFFORTS TO GET STUDENTS TO EXCEL. THE FULL INDEX INCLUDES ALL PUBLIC SCHOOLS IN THE U.S. WITH MORE THAN 200 GRADUATING SENIORS. AS MANY SMALLER SCHOOLS AS COULD BE FOUND WITH SCORES ABOVE 1.000 ALSO HAVE BEEN INCLUDED. SCHOOLS THAT CHOSE MORE THAN HALF OF THEIR STUDENTS THROUGH ENTRANCE EXAMINATIONS OR OTHER ACADEMIC QUALIFICATIONS WERE NOT CONSIDERED.
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