Challenge Index

The Challenge Index is a method for the statistical ranking of top public high schools in the United States by Washington Post columnist Jay Matthews. This ranking is determined by the extent of availability of the Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate Programs in the school's curriculum and the number of graduating students. Typically, all students taking an AP or IB class will be required to take either a written, oral, or combined examination at the end of the year.

For each school, the study tallies the total number of AP and IB exams are taken that year in the high school. This sum is divided by the number of students graduating in that same year. This ratio is the Challenge Index. Not incorporated with the study are magnet schools, or any school that accepts over 50% of its students via a placement test or other type of admission criterion. The study effectively demonstrates the public schools with greatest opportunity for all students to challenge themselves with college level courses. However, critics argue that this ranking system does a disservice by not taking into consideration the actual performance of the student exams, but merely the quantity of exams taken. Administrators of the study acknowledge that the system is "not a measurement of the overall quality of the school but illuminates one factor that many educators consider important."

The editors, primarily Jay Mathews, defend their ratings by citing recent studies by U.S. Department of Education senior researcher Clifford Adelman. In 1999 and 2005, Adelman showed that the best predictor of college graduation was not good high-school grades or test scores, but whether or not a student had an intense academic experience in high school. The demands of higher level, college-type courses in high school would, according to Newsweek, provide that experience. The editors are critical of some other indices of school excellence, such as US News & World Report “America’s Best Colleges”, as including too many factors, and of American high schools in general, since only 5% of all US high schools make the Newsweek list by having at least 1 AP or IB test score per each graduating senior.

Tabulated results of the Challenge Index are published for Washington area high schools in the Washington Post annually. Newsweek also publishes nation-wide results each year.

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