The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
An education isn't how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know. It's being able to differentiate between what you know and what you don't......  ...Anatole France.
Commentary of the Day - March 5, 2000: Are these really the 100 best high schools in America?:
Newsweek magazine recently published an article entitled "The 100 Best High Schools" together with a rank ordered list of some 418 U.S. public high schools.  Unlike U.S. News & World Report rankings of colleges and universities, which are based on numerous measures of quality, the Newsweek rankings of high schools were based on a remarkably simple statistic.  Namely, schools were ranked solely by dividing the total number of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate tests taken by the students at the school by the number of graduating seniors.

At first glance, this may seem like the dumbest way to rank schools yet devised.  The International Baccalaureate program is both rigorous and comprehensive.  Likewise, individual Advanced Placement courses must be rigorous to prepare students for the AP exams.  However, only a relatively small number of high schools in the United States offer the IB program, and only some 43,000 IB tests were taken in the U.S. last year.  Many more students enroll in Advanced Placement classes (more than 1.1 million AP tests were taken last year).  However, the Advanced Placement program covers only a narrow range of college preparatory courses, and a given high school student may take only one or two of these courses.  Both the IB program and AP courses are expensive to offer, and many students do not have access to them.  In addition, the Newsweek ranking was based only on the number of IB and AP exams taken per graduating senior.  No consideration was given to how well the students in a particular school scored on these tests.

Why then should anyone place any credence in the rankings?  After all even at the "best" colleges and universities in America admissions officers usually base their decisions on a student's high school grades, his or her class rank,  Scholastic Aptitude Test scores, admissions essays, and letters of recommendation.  The answer it seems comes from the research of Clifford Adelman.  Mr. Adelman, who works for the much maligned U.S. Department of Education, conducted a major study of 13,000 students who were 10th graders in 1980.  He followed their progress for the next 13 years to learn what factors were most important in predicting success in college.  The surprising result of this work was that what mattered most was how challenging and rigorous were the courses the students took in high school.  It did not matter what grades they received in these course, although certainly they must have done well enough to get into college.  According to Adelman, AP and IB courses help students to develop "self-directed learning skills".  The Irascible Professor would agree.  Students enrolled in AP and IB courses are challenged to develop research and writing skills that most high school students never acquire.

The Irascible Professor recently attended the Forum on School Science at the 2000 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  This forum focussed on the teaching of mathematics and science in urban schools.  One theme that emerged from the forum was the need for rigorous, challenging courses in urban schools.  Most of the presenters were people who worked in minority schools in poor school districts.  Yet speaker after speaker commented on the need for rigorous, demanding courses to prepare at-risk students for success in college.  The results of Mr. Adelman's research certainly back this up.

What does this mean for school reform?  Well the Irascible Professor is under no illusion that AP or IB courses are suited for all high school students.  However, every high school student should have the opportunity to attempt AP and IB courses.  AP courses should be readily available to every high school student willing to take the challenge, regardless of how wealthy or impoverished a school district might be.  This may mean that state governments will need to step in with subsidies in some areas.  Every high school student who plans to enroll in a college or university should be encouraged to take AP courses regardless of his or her grades.  Likewise, every high school student should have access to an IB program.  This may require some creative allocation of resources, and it may require the establishment of residential academies in more sparsely populated states.

Finally, are the high schools that made the Newsweek top 100 really the best in the country?  Who can say for sure.  However, the Irascible Professor is sure that students who have taken the AP and IB courses are more likely to succeed in future academic endeavors than their compatriots who have taken the usual "dumbed down" offerings.

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