Imagine going to a track meet in which medals are awarded according to how many competitors you put in the 100-meter dash or how high you can set the bar in the pole vault. Winners in the long jump are determined not by how far individuals soar but by how many attempts they make.
Those phony measures of excellence are being used to judge our nation’s high schools.
Newsweek magazine’s annual ranking of public high schools was published this week. It is one reason I teach my students that they must understand at least some rudimentary statistics in order to become critical consumers of news.
After cataloguing some genuinely valuable criteria for rankings, such as high schools that offer innovative arts programs or college credit classes, Newsweek proceeded to rank schools based on a single measure — the number of Advanced Placement and/or International Baccalaureate tests administered by each school.
The testing measure has absolutely nothing to do with how students perform on the tests, but merely rewards schools that give the most tests. Students do not even have to take AP classes to take AP tests.
Were the Newsweek rankings merely a freak sideshow on a path to reforming education, the ratings would be amusing. But increasingly, there is evidence that schools take the rankings seriously, rushing to offer more and more tests.
Since Newsweek began ranking schools in 1998, the number of AP annual exams has more than doubled. This year that figure is expected to top 2.3 million, according to Jay Mathews, education reporter for The Washington Post.
As the AP program has expanded, the percentage of students passing the exams has declined. In California, between 2000 and 2005, the percentage of students passing an AP test (scoring 3 and above on a 1-5 point scale), declined by more than 2 percent.
While minority participation in the AP program is increasing, minority results on the tests are not particularly encouraging. In 2004, the mode, or most frequent score, of African-American students on each of the 35 AP tests was a 1, the lowest possible score. Mean, or average, scores for African-American students in 2005 were slightly less than 2.
By creating rankings based upon mindless test-taking, Newsweek inadvertently assures that the quality of existing AP programs will decline. As schools insist that greater numbers of unqualified students take AP classes, teachers are forced to dumb down their lessons. AP classes are increasingly becoming college-level classes in name only.
The real value of the Newsweek high school ranking is to teach students that with about $350 to pay for four AP tests per student in grades 9-12, you can build the number one high school in America.
The 21st-century model high school doesn't need books, classrooms or teachers. In fact, the kids don't even need to go to school, as long as they can sign their names to a battery of tests.
Patrick Mattimore teaches AP psychology at a college preparatory high school in San Francisco and is a fellow at the Institute for Analytic Journalism.