kitchen table math, the sequel: Dan Brown on the Challenge Index

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Dan Brown on the Challenge Index

Scoring high on Mathews's Challenge Index has created an incentive for schools across the country to push students who have no shot at passing the exams into these high-intensity classes. On a large scale, kids reading below grade level are taking classes designed for above-grade-level students. You've got students that have great difficulty reading young adult books or writing complete sentences being assessed on independently reading novels like Jane Eyre and composing analytical essays on Bronte's style.

The argument that Mathews makes in an accompanying Newsweek piece is that AP classes are healthy "shock therapy" for lower-performing college-bound kids. I see his argument that a rigorous environment can be a motivator for some striving, low-skilled students to bump up their effort.

However, the widespread pushing of AP courses on struggling students -- with rewards of high scores on the "Challenge Index" -- is not in many students' best interest. I expect Mathews would view me as a stodgy defender of the status quo while he casts himself as a bold innovator. At least he quotes one dissenting voice from Professor J. Martin Rochester:

"Having failing students take AP courses as a solution to their academic struggles is like promoting a poor-hitting minor-league ballplayer to the New York Yankees in the hope that it will jump-start his career if he faces major-league pitching."

I'll go one better on the sports analogy; let's take the Boston Marathon. If you want to have a shot at finishing those 26.2 miles, let alone compete for a decent finishing place, it takes long-term training and serious dedication. If you are short on one of those two qualities, a surplus of the other may suffice to get you over the finish line. If you've got neither -- you're not in shape and you don't really want to do hardcore distance running -- then your school does you no favors by pressuring you to sign up for the race.

Newsweek's Top High Schools List is Off Base
I'm a huge fan of Martin Rochester.

I'm of two minds on the Challenge Index.

In fact, Mathews singlehandedly opened up Advanced Placement courses to disadvantaged kids.

He may have singlehandedly opened up Advanced Placement courses to advantaged kids caught in the sorting machine.

Now that it's become crystal clear that the original Challenge Index has served its purpose and, in my view, run its course, he's added the Equity and Excellence score.

Fair enough.

Speaking of Jay Mathews, go read Work Hard. Be Nice. Right now.



SteveH said...

"I see his argument that a rigorous environment can be a motivator for some striving, low-skilled students to bump up their effort."

Most high schools have three levels or tracks of classes; general, college prep, and honors/AP. Students can (and should) be pushed at all levels. It seems that many schools push kids far up into AP classes to make their "Challenge Index" look good. Then they come up with a few simplistic reasons to justify the move. The only way to make this work is to water down the course. Therefore, you have to add in the percent who pass the AP test into the formula.

Any time an empirical formula rises to a certain level of importance, people begin to game it. If it becomes important enough, there will be an on-going battle between those who control the formula and those who wish to find its weak spots.

This doesn't bother me too much. I think it's better than saying that education can't be quantified in any way, shape, or form; i.e. "authentic education".

However, I think the real problem in high schools is that (as clearly seen in math), if you're not on the top track, you're nowhere. The goal is not to force kids onto the top track, but to fix the other tracks; to fix the lower grades so that you can expect more from the lower tracks or to eliminate the lowest (babysitting) track.

When I was in high school, we just had a general/vocational track and a college prep track. There were no honors classes or AP classes. Now it seems that we have track inflation. When I look at our high school's academic handbook, I get the feeling that the honors/AP track is for the good colleges and the college prep track is the minimum to get into any college. The high school does talk about eliminating the lowest track, but I get the feeling they think that will solve the problem by itself. I did hear that they want to leave the lowest track for those kids who really do need the slower pace or extra help. They want to push the rest into the college prep tack. That will just mean that if you want any kind of reasonable education, you have to be on the top track, and that isn't a good thing.

John said...

I see the argument and there's no doubt that it looks attractive. Put a highly motivated amateur into a group of accomplished pros and the amateur is going to benefit from the atmosphere, tips, advice, teaching passed on by the pros.
Sounds like it might work for the kid that has been pigeon-holed and kept back. The problem is that it goes against everything we know about the acquisition of expertise.
With any multi-skilled task, you need training in the required skills. Top class performers (at anything) typically begin at an early age to engage in relevant training activities in the domain and they are supported by exceptional teachers and committed parents, to paraphrase Bloom, B.S. in Developing Talent in Young People (1985).
Expertise is something that develops out of expert instruction in a domain-specific area and it is a long-term process that requires extended practice.
Teaching children to read and become expert at arithmetic and then maths takes time, practice and great teaching. And it needs to begin as soon as they start school.
For anyone interested, there's a very interesting book on the subject: Ericsson, K.A., Charness, N., Feltovich, P.J. and Hoffmand, R.R., (2006) The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, CUP.

VickyS said...

In my son's high school, you have to take the AP test if you take the AP class. Is this standard in the AP world? I thought it was a good idea.

Count me among those who hand wring about opening up AP classes to all comers. Maybe you could have a month trial period (give everyone a chance) then cut those who weren't performing? Equal opportunity, then down to business. Funny, I'm not sure this would go over too well.

The real solution is that the non-AP classes should offer challenge to their students, too, at their level. Like Steve said, more focus should be put on fixing them.

And yes, Marty Rochester is awesome. A frustrated parent like so many of us here, but he really took it to the next level. I highly recommend his book.

Anonymous said...

Diversity is a major driving force in this issue; too many whites and Asians and too few Blacks and Hispanics were/are in AP classes. Therefore, the rules for taking the classes were/must be changed. Flunking out/removing kids who aren't performing was/is unacceptable for the same reason. Never mind/pretend otherwise if the kids who worked to prepare themselves are shortchanged. "Everyone knows" that such kids don't need anything challenging because "they'll do well anyway". BTW, I believe absolutely that schools need to do a much better job PREPARING far more kids to be READY for AP classes.

Catherine Johnson said...

Ironically, white students in affluent suburbs like mine probably benefited from the Challenge Index.

At least they were let into the classes - and in their case, since they have parents who often can re-teach or corral neighbors to do so or hire tutors - the "Challenge" probably works often enough.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Catherine that some affluent schools are too restrictive; wanting only kids likely to get 5s on the AP tests is ridiculous. It is likely that most of the kids could do the work if they wished. There are also some schools which should not be offering AP courses because no students are really capable of that level work. In that situation, offer a solid honors level. A course can be challenging without being AP level.

Regarding the athletics comparison above, the analogy only works if the amateurs have a certain level of skills/conditioning. There are unbridgeable gaps there, too. I remember a family who sent their junior-high rec-league soccer player to an overnight camp that had 4 (2-3 hr) training sessions and 4 classroom sessions (nutrition, tactics, injury prevention/recognition, analysis of taped professional games etc) every day. He was unable to keep up physically/skills-wise, was ragged by other kids because he wouldn't shower (gang showers, he was overweight; all other kids showered after every training session) and was taken home in tears on the second day. Since all of the camp materials identified it as designed for serious travel-team players and included the daily schedule, I don't know what the parents were thinking. It certainly wasn't a happy experience for the kid.

Jay Mathews said...

These are all smart comments by people who share the view I had 11 years ago, that opening AP to all motivated students would cause the classes to be dumbed down and the top kids, and their parents, to complain. When Fairfax County, Va., the biggest and one of the highest performing districts in the Post's circulation, decided to open AP to all in 1998, I waited for a deluge of phone calls, since I was already known as the Post's big cheerleader for such a policy. I am still waiting for those calls and emails. I got one, from the head of the gifted parents association, in about 2003, but it was more of a philosophical complaint. She didnt have any bad classroom experiences to relate. I was astonished at this reaction, but I have found it happens this way all over the country. Open up AP to all and the top kids are NOT hurt. In communities with lots of fast students, the AP teachers feel obliged to keep the standards up, particularly in Fairfax and other districts where they also require that all AP students take the tests. In communities with few top kids, the course is not taught with the same rigor as it is in the burbs, but it is much more rigorous than any other courses in those schools, and the kids and their parents appreciate their getting a much better chance to prepare for college. If anybody has any real life cases of a top kid being hurt by AP for all, please ask that person to email me at It would be a very rare case, and this a good column topic.

Catherine Johnson said...

Hi, Jay!

Your book is FANTASTIC.

AND: it was the first book on education our newly elected school board member read.

My goal is to have the first 'KIPP' in Westchester Conty - KIPP for suburban kids.

SteveH said...

AP for all masks other problems. It puts the onus on the child. I don't disagree with the move because the external AP test forces some level of high expectations, and some kids might make the leap.

However, it is not a solution for kids who try it and fail. They blame the student rather than look at any sort of underlying problem with curriculum or teaching.