Courtesy of Northcoast PrepStudents at Northcoast Prep in Arcata
Three California schools appear in the list of the top 25 schools most successful in preparing students for college, according to the Washington Post's controversial "Challenge Index" published yesterday.
They are hardly typical California schools.
The highest-ranked school in California is the Northcoast Preparatory and Performing Arts Academy, a ninth-through-12th-grade charter school with 123 students in Arcata on the California-Oregon border. All students are required to take International Baccalaureate classes, which consist of two-year courses of study recognized by universities around the world.
Eighteenth on the Challenge Index list is the Oxford Academy in Cypress, north of San Bernardino. Although a public school, students need a minimum grade point average to be admitted, and must take a rigorous entrance exam. If they don't maintain their GPA, they have to transfer to another school in the Cypress school district.
Ranked 24th is The Preuss School UCSD, a charter school located on UC San Diego's East Campus. It was established with multimillion-dollar grants from a range of philanthropists, including Peter and Peggy Preuss. College preparation is the major focus of the sixth-through-12th-grade school with a largely Latino enrollment. It has about 100 students in each grade.
How valid is the Post's Challenge Index? The Post itself published a harsh critique of the index by Andrew Rotherham and Sara Mead, charging that many schools that get high rankings "have high dropout rates or glaring achievement gaps between racial and ethnic groups." At the same, they argued, many schools that fail to make the list "may be doing a better job educating all of their students."
Major criticisms of the index haven't deterred local educators, and media outlets, from using it to tout school excellence.
The complete list of 1,900 schools that made it on to the Post's Challenge Index was published for the first time in the Post this week. (It was previously published in Newsweek, until the Post sold the magazine last year.)
The Challenge Index is supposed to measure "a public high school’s effort to challenge all of its students." Rankings are reached by dividing the number of students in a school's graduating class by the number of Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams students take.
To make it on to the Challenge Index, the number of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or Advanced International Certificate of Education exams taken by students must equal or exceed the number of seniors in the graduating class.
In Arcata, the major focus of the 10-year-old Northcoast Prep is college preparation and the performing arts. Students take International Baccalaureate classes in subjects like history, Spanish, French and philosophy, although they are not required to actually take the exam.
Student demand is rising for the limited number of spots at the charter school. This year there was a lottery for the 50 students who applied for the 36 openings in the school.
Michael Bazemore, the head of Northcoast Prep, acknowledged that the Challenge Index measures one dimension of a school's excellence. Its preoccupation with college preparation is "just one aspect of a high school's orientation," he said.
"In our area, there are many schools which have unique programs," he said. Nonetheless, he said, "we are very pleased to be recognized by the Washington Post in this way."