The truth behind the challenge

April 14, 2011, 11:27 a.m. | By Maggie Shi | 12 years, 7 months ago

A quality education means looking beyond the numbers

As students, we have certain key numbers that seem to sometimes define our lives. We spend endless hours studying obscure words to try to boost our SAT scores, taking endless practice AP tests, or trying to edge our way closer to (or at least not get farther away from) that golden 4.0.

Our lives revolve so much around these numbers, we begin to define ourselves by them, forgetting their real meaning.
Something as complex as a high school education cannot be reduced to a number. But this doesn't mean people aren't going to try. There is a wealth of education-related data now available to the general public, accessible by a simple Internet search. And as with any data, there is a continuous effort to deduce meaning from it. One such attempt is the well publicized but poorly executed Washington Post Challenge Index, which ranks public high schools in the D.C. metropolitan region.

The Post touts the simplicity of its ranking formula: the number of AP and International Baccalaureate tests taken by all students in a school in a year, divided by the number of graduating seniors.

While simplicity is often a virtue, it's not in this case because it means overlooking important factors of a quality education. It is necessary that counties and schools keep things in perspective when rating students and schools -- MCPS and Blair have done decent jobs to date.
There are too many aspects of a "good" school to be summed up by a single ranking. Student well-being, teacher capability, administrative competence and general quality of the learning environment are not represented in the Challenge Index ranking. The workings of an entire school cannot be defined solely by the number of tests taken; the other factors need to be somehow taken into consideration too.

The formula The Post uses is also much too simple and can be easily manipulated. A school looking to increase its score could easily increase the number of AP tests taken by allowing anyone to sign up for AP classes, watering down the curricula and then requiring students in the class to take the test.

Fairfax County attempted just this, and while its schools' Challenge Index rankings went up, it also landed itself in a budgeting dilemma. The cash-strapped county tried to rescind its policy of refunding all AP tests but according to a ruling by Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli early this year, if Fairfax required students to take the tests, then it was obligated to pay for them.

MCPS, on the other hand, has done a much better job handling the meaning of numbers. Over a decade ago, the county took a step in the right direction by abolishing class rankings. And while this may have denied the top few students the chance to be named valedictorian, it reduces the cutthroat competition for the rest of us.

This doesn't mean that students aren't working hard. Instead, it allows them to focus on individual improvement instead of comparing themselves to each other.

The county also emphasizes the importance of self-improvement by not focusing solely on cold, hard numbers to compare students to each other. The grading policy, for example, is exceedingly forgiving. In classes with final exams, a bad grade one quarter isn't the end of the world -- there's still a chance for redemption with the exam.

And classes with no final exam exemplify the county's emphasis on progress, because the final semester grades "follow the trend" of quarter grades. Students whose grades go up a letter grade over the two quarters are given the higher of the two.

MCPS also focuses on second chances. The school system's "Seven Keys to College Readiness" set certain milestones that students should achieve in order to be ready for college-- things like earning a score of 3 or higher on an AP exam or at least a 1650 on the SAT.

At a first glance, it may seem like the county is pushing to accumulate more scoring data. But Blair assistant principal Tamitha Campbell said that the point of the "Keys” is to show students there are many ways to achieve success. "The message," she said, "is that just because you haven't met one key doesn't mean you're doomed -- you can always get another key."

The county's disinclination to rely solely on numbers and rankings to judge students is reflected in Blair's learning environment. Blair teachers of AP classes try to make their classes truly college-level courses instead of watering down the curriculum, sacrificing quantity of AP students for quality of the classes.

In addition, Blair, like MCPS, encourages students to look past just the scores. "I don't believe students should internalize any number [as a measure of] self-worth or intellect," Campbell said.

Of course, this is not to say numbers like AP scores should be totally disregarded. They reflect some aspects of a school or of students -- how hard the students work, the opportunities are available to them. Analysis of these scores can give significant insight, too. They are often useful for comparing schools in an objective manner, which is needed for proper oversight.

However, in today's data obsessed world, pointless efforts to quantify and compare schools and students must not distract us from what is really important -- getting a quality education.

Maggie Shi. More »

Show comments


No comments.

Please ensure that all comments are mature and responsible; they will go through moderation.