Last week when Newsweek magazine came out with its list of top-performing schools, Riverside-Brookfield High School Superintendent/Principal Jack Baldermann saw it as a validation of the school's strategy over the last three years.
RB never before had made it to the list of schools singled out by the magazine and the list's creator, Jay Mathews. This year, they checked in at No. 323, the sixth highest ranking of any Chicago-area high school?"higher than Evanston, Oak Park, Barrington, Glenbrook North and Lyons Township, schools traditionally listed in the survey.
"This year we really hit our stride," Baldermann said. "We're going to get much better next year and in the following year."
Newsweek's List of "Best American High Schools" had its genesis in a book Mathews wrote in 1998 called "Class Struggle: What's Wrong (and Right) with America's Best Public High Schools." In the book, he argued that even the best high schools did little to push less gifted students, reserving the rigorous college-prep curriculum for an academic elite.
In compiling his list of top schools, Mathews sought to highlight schools that push a rigorous curriculum in a broader fashion. He chose to use the number of Advanced Placement tests given at a school each spring, dividing them into the number of graduating seniors. Students may also elect to take Advanced Placement courses, which seek to emulate the rigor of college classes. By successfully passing an AP test at the end of the course, a student can qualify for college credit.
The list has been criticized for focusing on participation rather than results, with many educators saying the list derives from criteria too narrowly drawn.
At Lyons Township High School, which has been on the last three Newsweek lists and checked in at No. 869 (24th in the state) this year, inclusion on Mathews list is considered a non-event.
"It's nice to be on the list, but it doesn't mean a whole heck of a lot," said Jennifer Bialobok, community relations coordinator for District 204, which draws students from the southern half of Brookfield.
"The list doesn't talk about the quality of the program, and we're talking about, in most instances a small percentage of the student population," she added.
More important to LT, Bialobok said, was the 2005 Bright A+ award the school received last month. LT was one of 64 Illinois schools (and one of just five high schools) honored with the award this year. The award is based on academic performance based on the ACT test composite score of all students tested.
While Baldermann concedes that the Newsweek list is only one measure for schools, he feels it's worthwhile and indicates how high schools are challenging students across the board. At RB that number has been growing dramatically in recent years. In 1998, 99 AP tests were taken at RB. In 2005, students took a total of 930 tests.
At the same time, the percentage of passing grades in those tests has declined. In 1998, some 86 percent of tests taken at RB received passing grades. The grades for the 2005 tests have not been tabulated yet, but in 2004, when 591 tests were taken, 66 percent (391 tests) received passing grades.
"A kid may or may not pass the test, we are preparing them not just for the one day of the test, but for life after high school," Baldermann said. "When they go to Northern Illinois or Illinois State or wherever they end up going to college, the kids that have not been exposed to that material before will be lost. These kids are already prepared for it."
As for the complaint that the list is made up of schools where only a small percentage of students actually take the tests, Baldermann said that at RB he's trying to encourage everybody in the school to participate.
"Why should the best courses be reserved for only a privileged few?" Baldermann asked. "With the AP you have national standards with an excellent assessment that's more authentic than either the SAT or ACT. The teachers take it very seriously and are very interested in how kids perform.
"I agree the list shouldn't be the only measurement used, but it has moved American education."
The list also provides a certain level of PR for the school district in an era when tax referendums and accountability from taxpayers always lurks in the background.
"For me as an educator and administrator it means a lot," Baldermann said. "I want the community to have confidence in what we're doing. If people would just take my word for it, that would be fine, but people want more than that."