The top high schools during covid expected the most of their students

It’s hard to exaggerate how bad the past two years have been for American schools. Student performance has dropped, and that only counts children who showed up. Online classes were awkward and frustrating. Parents’ outrage over our education system has increased.

But at some high schools, learning continued at a high level. It will take more research to find out for everyone. I have only identified a few. Maybe they are just bizarre exceptions. But they suggest that schools committed to in-depth learning for all students events can backfire even this awful.

Since 1998, I have been collecting data from high schools with extraordinarily widespread student involvement in college-level courses and exams in the Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Cambridge programs. I call it the Challenge Index. The pandemic made it impossible for me to get reliable figures in 2020, but I have enough data from years just before and after to show which schools had the highest participation rates in the demanding three- to five-hour AP or IB exams that are the key to keeping standards high.

Of the top 10 schools nationally for which I have before-and-after data, eight showed an increase in college-level test participation from spring 2019 before the pandemic to spring 2021, when the detrimental effect on schools decreased but still was disruptive.

Those eight high schools include the McAllen, Pharr, San Juan, Frontier, and Alamo campuses of the Texas-based IDEA Public Charter Network. There is also the Mesa, Ariz., Campus of the BASIC public charter network. Those six schools admit students based on random lotteries, but had three or four times as many seniors who passed at least one AP exam as the national average.

The remaining two schools in the top eight whose Challenge Index ratings increased during the pandemic are magnets that allow students based on academic talent. They are Carnegie Vanguard in Houston and Young Women’s Preparatory Academy in Miami.

The magnets get the students who achieve the highest score. The BASIC charters come mainly from middle class families. But the IDEA schools improved their already impressive results despite the fact that they mostly had impoverished students. Those schools hire ambitious teachers, support their work closely, and purposefully focus on preparing students for AP and IB exams, written and graded by independent experts.

There are many schools on my list, including regular neighborhood schools, that have shown similar resilience during the pandemic, but their numbers are small compared to the multitude of U.S. campuses devastated by what happened. I’m not saying high standards are a cure for pandemic damage. My only point is that if you are looking for schools that are successful even in the worst of circumstances, they tend to demand a lot from students and help them achieve those goals.

I rate schools on the basis of a simple ratio – the number of AP, IB or Cambridge exams given in the year divided by the number of seniors graduating. Large schools therefore have no advantage over small schools. The most common school grading systems emphasize average test scores. I do not do this because I think scores are more a measure of the well – being of parents than of the quality of schooling. To some extent, the list not only reveals how many students know, but also shows how much ambitious teaching they have experienced. The two factors are related, but I think the latter is a better measure of school quality. Having lots of books at home is fun, but not every child enjoys that benefit.

What distinguishes schools on the Challenge Index is not family income, but teacher expectations. The schools that perform well on the list open AP, IB and Cambridge courses to anyone who wants to take them, and sometimes require everyone to take those courses and tests. Unfortunately, most high schools only allow students with good grades in those programs. They do not understand that even students who fail the exam learn more than they would in regular courses.

When I started the list 24 years ago, only 1 percent of American high schools had at least half of their juniors and seniors who participated in AP, IB, or Cambridge programs. Energetic educators have since brought that number to about 12 percent, a slow but significant gain. You can find my data at Rankings of 2019 are on the 2020 list, and rankings of 2021 are on the 2022 list.

Will Robertson, an English teacher at Corbett High School near Portland, Ore., Vehemently objected to his school’s 2005 decision to require students to take multiple AP courses and exams. Corbett was an average country school. Robertson predicted a disaster. He told his innovative principal that his students could not handle such demands.

In another memo to the principal three years later, Robertson admitted that his assumptions were “completely false.” He said “after a week of initial grumbling, students began to accept AP for All as the norm. My response to any and all concerns was simple: ‘This is what we are doing here now.’ I forgot how flexible teens can be. They quickly accepted and moved on. ” Corbett was in the top third of 1 percent of schools on the 2022 list.

When a school insists that all students do hard work, it changes the atmosphere, especially during crises such as the pandemic. The sudden shift to Zoom classes and online learning made learning more difficult, but the goals were so deeply ingrained in the schools’ cultures that almost everyone worked to maintain them.

At most schools, the pandemic has led to less teaching and learning, especially among the most disadvantaged children. The fact that some schools with strong cultures have succeeded in any case is insignificant in many respects. Our schools should not focus on what could have been, but on bringing our children back to the level where they can be ready for college or the workplace.

But it does no harm to keep in mind that challenging all students and giving them the necessary encouragement and support can make a difference. Students, teachers and parents united by an ambitious curriculum can even overcome a health disaster. The more such schools we have, the better.

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