Riverside-Brookfield High School was again ranked the second best of high schools in the state of Illinois in the recently published annual rankings of American high schools published by Newsweek magazine. Lincoln Park High School in Chicago was rated the best high school in Illinois by Newsweek.
RB was ranked the 116th best high school in country by Newsweek, a drop of 40 places from last year when Newsweek ranked RB 76th in the country.
Lyons Township High School, which serves the southern half of Brookfield, was ranked 27th in Illinois and 1,097th in the nation by Newsweek.
But the value of the Newsweek rankings is questioned by many, including Dennis Kelly, the superintendent of Lyons Township High School District 204.
"The rankings aren't about educational research or quality statistics, they're about selling the magazine and always have been," said Kelly.
Newsweek bases its rankings entirely on one statistic developed by a reporter, Jay Mathews, when he worked for the Washington Post in the 1990s. The statistic, which Mathews calls the Challenge Index, is the derived by taking the number of Advanced Placement (AP) tests taken by students in a public high school and dividing it by the number of graduating seniors at that high school.
So the more students at a high school who take AP classes, and hence AP exams, the better a school will rank. Matthews also counts the number of International Baccalaureate tests taken which is why Lincoln Park, a magnet school with an International Baccalaureate program, ranks so high. AP classes are supposed to be college-level course work. AP exams are given and graded by the College Board organization
The major flaw in the index, aside form the difficulty of ranking high schools based on a single statistic, is that the challenge index does not consider at all how well students actually do on the AP exams, Kelly said.
"It's a classic example of telling half of a story and, I think, misleading people," said Kelly. "While it's important the number of students that take a test, what's critically important is how well they do on the test."
By that measure LT does much better than RB.
At LT, 92 percent of students who took AP exams in 2006 scored a 3 or better. AP exams are scored on a grade of 1 to 5, with five as the highest score. Three is the minimum score to receive college credit. Most colleges require a score of 4 or 5 to receive college credit, Kelly said.
In contrast, at RB only 49 percent of the students who took AP exams received a score of 3 or better.
Supporters of the Challenge Index like Mathews and RB Superintendent/Principal Jack Baldermann argue that it is most important to expose as many students as possible to the academic rigor of AP classes, even if many of the students don't do well enough on the AP exam to receive college credit. However, Baldermann admits that the Challenge Index, and thus Newsweek's rankings, has limitations.
"It's called the Challenge Index, and I think it's a great indicator of how well a school is challenging its students," said Baldermann. "But you can't rank a high school based solely on one set of criteria. And that's why we also look at graduation rates and other measures."
A much higher proportion of students at RB take AP classes than at LT. In 2006 461 RB students took a total of 973 AP exams. RB has an enrollment of about 1,450 students. Conversely at LT, a school with an enrollment in 2006 of about 3,750 students, 520 students took about 1,000 AP exams.
At RB counselors strongly recommend that average students take at least one AP class. In fact, once a student at RB is recommended for an AP class he or she usually has to get a waiver signed by a department chair to avoid taking the AP class.
At LT, student class selection is left mostly up the student, according to Kelly.
The more students who take an AP class the higher a school will score in Newsweek's rankings, no matter how well the student does in the class or on the AP exam.
Baldermann said it's good that schools have an incentive to put more students in AP classes.
"I think it has actually made our educational system at the high school level more democratic, because prior to the Newsweek challenge and prior to Jay Mathews' work ... the AP system was somewhat elitist," said Baldermann.
"There were only a limited number of kids who were allowed to be a part of it, and I think what happened with the Challenge Index is that it has exposed a much higher percentage of students to the most rigorous curriculum we have, and I think that's very democratic. I think that's very healthy."