Until a few years ago, America’s elementary and secondary schools generally escaped our national obsession with lists. Almost every week another ranking of best communities, most beautiful people or top hospitals is published.
But in 1998 Newsweek, which is owned by The Washington Post, began publishing a list of “The 100 Best High Schools in America.” The ranking is based on “The Challenge Index,” a measure developed by Washington Post education reporter Jay Mathews. The list, published annually the past few years, has become increasingly influential. Other media outlets now cover it like a horserace, and high schools all over the country are reacting to the scrutiny.
Unfortunately, the Challenge Index is a flawed proxy for America’s “best” high schools. Using publicly available student performance data, we have found that many schools in Newsweek’s ranking have high dropout rates or glaring achievement gaps between racial and ethnic groups. At the same time, many schools that fail to make the Newsweek list may be doing a better job educating all of their students.
The Challenge Index is a simple measure: It’s the number of Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), and Cambridge tests a high school’s students take, divided by its number of graduating seniors. This simplicity is both its primary virtue and fatal flaw.