Newsweek’s Challenge Index, which rates high schools based on the percentage of students who take Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate tests, is out.

My daughter’s alma mater, Palo Alto High School, and sister school Gunn High refused to participate in the rankings.

School officials say they didn’t want to expose students to the shallowness, stress and unwanted publicity that comes with the survey, which ranks the top 1,200 U.S. high schools.

“It’s a very simplistic premise that the quality of a school can be measured by the number of AP tests students take,” said Marilyn Cook, associate superintendent of the wealthy district in the heart of Silicon Valley.

Some Palo Alto parents worry that students are overloading on AP courses and stressing out, but that’s all about getting into an elite college. Nobody takes an extra AP to raise their school’s rank. I’m guessing Paly and Gunn didn’t rate as high as parents thought they should.

The Challenge Index has limitations: It rewards schools even if students take AP-labeled classes but can’t pass the AP exam. But I think it’s a useful exercise.

Update: In a column, index creator Jay Mathews explains why he thinks it measures an important factor and reprints an e-mail from an AP chemistry teacher about the long-term effects of her class on Sleepy, Grumpy, Sweetie and Angry.

About Joanne


  1. wayne martin says:

    This is incredibly rich! This school district has claimed that the meteoric rise in housing price in this district (which comprises Palo Alto, homes on the Stanford Campus and about one-third of Los Altos Hills) is because of the PAUSD (Palo Alto Unified School District).

    School District officials have, with their partners in crime—the real estate agents—been ruthless in making such claims, to pass parcel taxes and construction bonds. In fact, only a couple of weeks ago, the PAUSD announced plans for construction bonds of about $800M ($1.6B to retire) for this district of about 10,000 students.

    Real estate agents have made claims about a “Palo Alto Premium”—which justifies paying some unknown amount of money MORE for a house in Palo Alto because of “the schools”. A review of housing prices shows that housing prices are a little more in Palo Alto for certain kinds of homes (tract homes called “Eichlers” built in the 1950s and 60s, but not for high-end homes—which can be as high as in the $10-$20M range in Los Altos Hills.

    Since there is no national ranking for schools, these ad-hoc rankings—such as the Challenge Index—are about the only way to show school quality on a national level. The California API test scores for the PAUSD are high, but not the highest in the state.

    It’s not clear who made this decision. The District has also refused to have its teachers entered into a county-wide contest for “Best Teacher” that is conducted by one of the local newspapers. The reasoning about being “anti-competitive” is the same given for not allowing teachers to participate. I don’t think that the School Board has openly made this decision, which means that it must be coming from the Superintendent—who is soon to retire.

    This superintendent has been under a lot of criticism by the middle management (high school and middle school Principals primarily). In mid-April, the Middle Managers sent a letter to the School Board calling for Superintendent to resign. This letter was also made available to the local papers, so that everyone locally is aware of the concerns of the School District employees. Of course, the Real Estate agents have been very quiet, and contain to promote the claim of the “Palo Alto Premium” for housing prices. Without these national rankings it will harder for those folks to con prospective clients into purchasing homes.

    This information about AP test scores ought to be available under a California Public Records request, however.

  2. hardlyb says:

    My eldest daughter dropped out of Gunn (to home school herself) as a freshman because they wouldn’t let her take AP classes as a freshman (neither would any of the private high schools that she looked at). She passed a couple of AP exams at the end of that year studying on her own, though. If they would have let her do the right thing for herself, she would have added several AP exams to their total in the first 2 years of high school, and our house would be worth billions!

  3. UCs are either planning on or have already dropped any consideration of APs taken in freshman year.

  4. “The California API test scores for the PAUSD are high, but not the highest in the state.”

    Actually they are not even the highest in the south bay. Gunn and Palo Alto are behind Mission San Jose, Monta Vista, Lynbrook and Saratoga, even though the funding for these other schools are low compared to PAUSD.

  5. The anecdote about the four students who performed indifferently in high school, but reported excellent outcomes from college, illustrates one limitation of measuring a school’s success with test scores from one academic year. The students in the article achieved low scores on their AP exams and low grades in class, but said that when they encountered the material again as college students, they found it familiar and easy, so it turns out that they learned it after all. The reasons they gave for not performing well had nothing to do with the teacher, the material, or the class.

    I don’t know that there is a way to figure out how prevalent this type of outcome is. Perhaps it’s just an interesting anecdote, and no more. It certainly wouldn’t be fair to say that most students are learning all the material and just aren’t showing it – it’s probably a minority of cases. But it hints at the complexity of what is going on with some students, some of the time, that just isn’t captured by school statistics.

  6. wayne martin says:

    > UCs are either planning on or have already dropped
    > any consideration of APs taken in freshman year.

    I’m confused. Do you mean they won’t accept the AP credits to count towards required credits for a degree, or that they won’t look at AP work as a consideration for entry to the school?

  7. Cardinal Fang says:

    So if a kid takes AP tests at the end of his freshman year and gets 5s, that doesn’t count? How does that make sense?

  8. It does make sense, given the continuing escalation of early honors courses. However, I’m going to back off that statement a bit because I can’t remember when I read it and can’t find a link.

    I know I read at least one article on the UC’s concern over this escalation and their plans/intent/consideration of methods to limit it by restricting credit to classes taken sophomore year and over. I don’t remember enough about it to remember if it’s in place, and since I can’t find anything on it, it must have been that the University is still in the expressing concern stage.

  9. Cardinal Fang says:

    So Cal, are you saying that the UC is not going to give course credit to AP tests taken as a high school freshman? Surely the admission office would still be impressed by a kid who got 5s on Calculus BC and AP US History as a freshman, though?