Andrew J. Rotherham and Sara Mead
Education Sector, February, 2006
This report takes a hard look at what it means to make Newsweek’s recent list of best high schools in America. Newsweek’s rankings are generated using a fairly simple measure—the Challenge Index, which is determined by dividing the number of Advanced Placement (AP) tests and International Baccalaureate (IB) tests taken at a particular school by the number of graduating seniors. Rotherham and Mead argue the Challenge Index ignores key data on achievement gaps and overall graduation rates (i.e., the number of students who should have graduated). Consequently, schools with achievement gaps as high as 56 percentage points in reading between economically disadvantaged students and their more affluent peers can still make the list. This explains why of the top schools making the Newsweek list, the average graduation rate for African American students was only a mediocre 71 percent. Couple these figures with the fact that AP and IB tests are often taken by a disproportionately small number of students and the list seems even more suspect. Rotherham and Mead recommend creating a more comprehensive metric that includes AYP data for student subgroups or even a panel of professionals to evaluate the rankings.  
Jay Mathews, a Washington Post columnist and creator of the Challenge Index, offers a rebuttal to the report. He agrees that the Challenge Index is both narrow and simple—that’s the point. If achievement gap and graduation numbers were considered in the calculations, he contends, few inner city schools would ever make the list. To be sure, fairly measuring high school quality is no easy task. But excluding key indicators of school performance for the sake of simplicity doesn’t serve the “best” interests of readers, schools, or students.

To download the report and Jay Mathews’ response, click here.  

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