Painting only by numbers misses half the picture

Nov. 29, 2011, 7:42 p.m. | By Adam Kadir | 8 years, 10 months ago

Blair is more than a collection of stats and cannot be judged on test scores

No one likes to be number two. That is why Blazers are frustrated about their standings in high school rankings.

But, for once, we can say that it's not our fault. The problem is that a rating system cannot truly evaluate the quality of a school. Some methods judge based on AP testing or how many students they send to college. None of these approaches, though, account for the diversity of the student body or the well-roundedness of those who graduate.

The Washington Post's Challenge Index, compiled by education reporter Jay Mathews, ranks public high schools by calculating the number of AP or IB tests taken per graduating senior. Two Montgomery County schools are in the top five for the region: Bethesda-Chevy Chase and Richard Montgomery. The highest ranked Maryland school, B-CC, is sixtieth in the nation.

Blair, however, is behind eight other MCPS high schools at thirty-fifth in the region, and doesn't even place in the national top 200. Under Mathews' ranking, Blair has a "Challenge Index” of 3.317, which puts it in the top 1% in the nation.

Despite Blair's having "One of the great science magnets and communication magnets in American education,” according to Mathews, he ranks Blair behind schools that lack comparable programs, such as Quince Orchard and Churchill. Something is not right. It does not make sense that Blair has some of the best math, science and communications curricula in the country, but we're only thirty-fifth in the region of the country with the best public schools. What could be the problem?

An immediate answer comes to mind: money. Blair has more students eligible for subsidized lunch that any MCPS school ranked above us, at 32%. Mathews says his system accounts for that. By measuring the number of AP and IB tests taken, without factoring in the scores, Mathews' system is more balanced than one based off state test scores.

The more money students' families have, the more likely they are to do well on standardized tests because they had the advantage of being read to every night by college-educated parents. By Mathews' method, a school is ranked higher not for having more privileged students, but for enabling any students with the will and work ethic to accept the challenge of an AP class.

Blair should be proud of its relatively high ranking. Only seven out of the top 40 regional schools have subsidized lunch percentages above 30. Blair students do remarkably well for being more disadvantaged on average, and they achieve well in subjects other than AP tests. The boys' volleyball team took the state title last year. Blair garners more science awards than any other public high school in the county. Blair has more National Merit Scholars than any other school in Montgomery County. The beautiful works of Blair's artists adorn our hallways, and the bands and orchestras win every year at music competitions.

Maybe Blazers value things other than AP tests. Maybe they are more concerned about doing what they love and having a good time than getting into a top-ranked college. Students at the School of Science and Engineering in Dallas, TX, take on average 17.186 AP or IB tests each.

But Blazers are right to value the things they do. Students can take any class they want to expand their knowledge and understanding of the world around them. And, because Blazers don't take 17.186 AP classes each, they have the time to get to know themselves, their friends, and the people in their communities. Blazers have the time to volunteer at homeless shelters, direct movies, explore research projects and produce literary magazines.

Besides, not every worthwhile class is AP, and not every important test is designed by the College Board. At Blair, one can take Quantum Physics, Astronomy, Japanese, Peace Studies and Creative Writing and learn just as much as in an AP class. Everyone can study what he or she desires, whether that be entrepreneurship, international studies, communication or human services. It's our diversity of programs that makes us great, not the weight of our backpacks.

It's also our diversity of students that makes Blair superior, no matter what the rankings say. Thomas Jefferson High School in Alexandria, Virginia, ranked the best high school in the nation by the U.S. News and World Report, has a student body in which only 1.9% are black and 2.7% Latino.. Schools like Thomas Jefferson aren't really preparing their students to work in an increasingly diverse society. Instead, they are readying their graduates to live in bubbles of homogeneity.

Blair has almost equal populations of white, Latino and black students. A Blazer can study become passionate about than just math and science. Blair has a place for any student with any interest, and that's what makes it number one.

Adam Kadir. More »

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