The Challenge Index, my system for rating high schools based on college-level test participation, grew from watching a low-income school in East Los Angeles — Garfield High — find ways to challenge average students that most high-income schools never thought of. As The Washington Post unveils its 10th annual Challenge Index rankings of Washington area public schools this week, I want to see how low-income schools in this region are doing.
The Challenge Index rates each school by taking the number of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or other college-level tests the school gave in 2006 and dividing by the number of seniors who graduated from the school this year. High school educators who have learned, as the teachers at Garfield did, that even average students benefit from AP and IB are more likely to have more students taking those exams and do better on The Post’s list. High school educators who stick with what is still the majority view about AP and IB in America — that the programs are suitable only for top students — do not do so well.
In many cases, the list defies the conventional wisdom that schools with lots of low-income students are bad and schools with few such students are good. That is not to say that most low-income schools do well on the list. Most do not. Many of their teachers and administrators accept the widespread assumption that their students can’t do AP or IB. But the few schools in poor neighborhoods that break out of this mindset are worth studying.