Jay Mathews 2022 Challenge Index
It has by far the highest percentage of disadvantaged students of any school that has ever reached the top of what I call the Challenge Index.
Why is that? Principal Robert Garza IV, who like his students grew up in the Rio Grande Valley, said, “Parents know that when they send their children to school, they will receive instruction from teachers and leaders. the most hardworking. And so they know their children are becoming the hardest-working students.
It’s hard to imagine an American high school where parents wouldn’t erupt in anger if the demands of the IDEA network were imposed on their children. First-year students at IDEA McAllen each take three Advanced Placement courses, including grueling three-hour college-level final exams written and scored by independent experts.
IDEA McAllen students must complete a total of 11 AP courses and exams to graduate. Juniors begin the International Baccalaureate Diploma program while taking PAs. At the end of the final year, all students have taken six IB exams (some over three hours long) and written an IB in-depth essay, a research paper that must be 4,000 words.
So far this school year, only seven students have said they quit IDEA McAllen because it was too rigorous, said program director Dolores Gonzalez. IDEA high schools have an eight and a quarter hour day.
Huge character change from our toughest high schools
There are many ways to compare schools. The Challenge Index list is my attempt to move away from assessments that focus on average standardized test scores, which are more of a measure of family income than school quality. I rate schools based on their participation in college-level final exams such as AP, IB, and Cambridge. I want to see which schools have average students in these difficult classes. Ultra-selective schools like Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Virginia have few or no average students and are not relevant to my survey, so I place them on a separate list from public elites.
For each school in the Challenge Index, I divide the number of independently written and scored AP, IB and Cambridge exams given to all students in the school by the number of seniors graduating. Large schools therefore have no advantage over small ones. I rank them based on this simple ratio, which doesn’t include test scores. Less than one percent of AP test takers have not taken the AP course first.
I started the list to share a message I had received from pioneering educators: High schools could boost learning by encouraging as many students as possible to take AP, IB, and Cambridge courses and exams. Some schools were already revealing the potential for success of even disadvantaged teenagers when they were given the chance to do university work with encouraging teachers. But most high schools offered few such opportunities. In some cases, they banned students from AP classes if they had less than a strong B average.
I found a student at Mamaroneck High School in an affluent suburb of New York City who was denied her application to take AP US History because her grades were poor. She bought the course guide at a bookstore, did the homework her friends gave her of the AP course, and passed the AP exam, which students can take without school approval.
Reform educators increased the proportion of high schools with at least half of juniors and seniors passing at least an AP, IB or Cambridge exam. My research indicates that these schools have grown from just 1% of all US schools in 1998 to 12% in 2020.
But I never thought schools would dare to require all students to take multiple college-level courses and exams, like IDEA McAllen did. The first time I heard of a non-selective high school was in 2001. Married economists Michael and Olga Block told me they required every student to take at least six AP courses and exams in their new charter school in Tucson. I listened politely but threw away my notes of our conversation because I was sure parents would never support such a system.
I finally wrote about the Blocks in 2004 when I realized their wild plan was working. They were opening more BASIS charter schools due to increased demand from parents.
Tom Torkelson and JoAnn Gama founded the IDEA charter network in 2000 when they were 25-year-old teachers in Donna, Texas. They led the network through 2020. Shortly after IDEA launched, Torkelson read about BASIS schools and, along with Gama, decided they would also require AP or IB courses, even though the most of their students, unlike those at BASIS, were from low-income families.
One of the biggest and best charter networks stumbles but continues to grow
Torkelson told me he thinks the move will improve IDEA’s reputation, especially if its schools rank well on the Challenge Index. Not enough IDEA graduates have been accepted by top colleges, he said. Admissions officers thought “our students weren’t smart, they were just the smartest students in a low-income minority school.” IDEA decreed that every student would graduate with a minimum of 14 AP courses and exams.
When they launched the initiative, Torkelson said, it was at first “a disaster in every possible way”. The grades were very low. The school required teachers to prepare for AP exams that they could not pass on their own.
“We invested in training and supporting fanatical teachers and required every new teacher to take AP exams as part of their selection process,” he said. “We have often hired teachers who only got a 1 or 2 [on the 5-point grading scale], but they were smart, passionate, and we knew that if we put them through rigorous training where they both learned the content and the best ways to teach it clearly, they could be successful. The National Math and Science Initiative, a Dallas-based nonprofit organization, provided experienced PA teachers to lead the IDEA training sessions.
The percentage of IDEA students passing the AP or IB exams has increased slightly each year. After eight years, it reached 50%. The national pass rate for all PA students, most of whom are not low-income, is about 60%. The College Board reports that the proportion of low-income students taking AP exams nationwide rose from 3% in 2003 to 22% in 2018, with no decline in overall pass rates.
The top school on my first Challenge Index list, published in Newsweek magazine in 1998, was The Wheatley School in Old Westbury, NY Sixteen of the top 20 schools that year were, like Wheatley, neighborhood public schools with mostly families middle and upper class. .
But several charters, such as IDEA, had the independence and boldness to impose heavy AP or IB charges that regular public school districts would rarely consider. As a result, charters took over the list. On the new 2022 list of the top 300 schools nationally, the charters include 15 of the top 20. This includes eight schools from the IDEA network and four from the BASIS network. There are also some unusual non-charters mixed in with them.
It took me a while to get over my shock at this. I hadn’t thought that such ambitious course and test requirements could produce as many schools as parents would like. IDEA now has 137 schools in Texas, Louisiana and Florida. BASIS has 34 schools in Arizona, Louisiana, Texas, and Washington DC If people are looking for charter-initiated innovations, this is it.
The often overlooked secret to these challenges is that students who fail tough AP and IB exams often benefit from the experience as much as those who pass. They realize from their own academic progress and the success of their older friends in college that they learn more when they are forced to try harder classes than when they take easier classes as do their neighbors in mainstream schools. Their teachers encourage them and show them how much they have improved.
Conversations with these students and their teachers make this clear. Nadya Martinez, sixth-ranked IDEA San Juan College Prep math teacher, said one of her students only scored a 2 on the AP Calculus BC exam, usually too low for college credit. But the student had learned enough to earn a score on the University of Texas-Austin Placement Test exempting her from all college math courses until the second year of calculus. The student’s mother was sobbing when she called Martinez with the good news.
Garza, director of IDEA McAllen College Prep, said, “Students push and focus on their subject strengths while slowly building strength in their weaknesses.”
I didn’t know anything about IDEA until its schools started appearing on the list. What I have since learned suggests that other schools, if they are brave, could benefit from following this example.