They say the rich keep getting richer, but are they also getting smarter while the less affluent lag behind? Education researchers have raised that question in response to Newsweek magazine's recent ranking of the nation's "best" high schools -- a group that includes five campuses in the Austin Independent School District and one each in the Eanes and Round Rock ISDs. Newsweek's survey, published in the March 7 issue, ranked schools according to the percentage of students who take Advanced Placement (AP) tests or International Baccalaureate programs, arguing that students' willingness to tackle college-level material is a primary indicator of high-quality academics.
The recognition given AISD schools -- one of which, LBJ High School, ranked 17th -- is a sweet payoff for the district's three-year-old drive to place more students in AP courses, leading a statewide surge in AP-course participation, spurred on by initiatives from the Texas Legislature and Gov. George W. Bush. Unfortunately, data from the Texas Education Agency show that the students forging ahead into more challenging curricula are largely white and relatively wealthy.
Ed Fuller, a specialist in education research at the University of Texas' Dana Center, says a school ranking system based on AP participation focuses attention on the achievements of a select few and tells little about how well underachievers are being served. "Theoretically, in schools that may look like they're doing a great job with AP ... minorities may not be taking the tests or even taking the [AP] classes," says Fuller. "What you should really do is look at the ethnic breakdown of the kids enrolled in AP compared to the general enrollment. ... At this time, [the comparison] is not nearly as close as we would hope."
That racial and economic divide shows up clearly at Johnston High School, home to AISD's liberal arts academy and listed at No. 328 on Newsweek's "best" list: Black and Hispanic students comprise over 80% of the student body at Johnston but took only one-fourth of the AP calculus tests given at the school in 1999 and well under half of the English exams. Students who qualify for free and reduced lunches make up almost half of the school's enrollment, but represented less than a quarter of English and math test-takers.
At McCallum High School (No. 244 on the list), which is 40% minority and 23% economically disadvantaged, poor kids were virtually unrepresented at test time; blacks and Hispanics took only four out of 56 AP calculus exams and 16 out of 104 English tests. Minority and poor students were better represented at LBJ, but still fell short of their proportional numbers in the student population.
Still, no one is saying that expanding AP course offerings in schools is a bad thing. Quite the opposite: Extensive research has concluded that students who are challenged with advanced courses are more likely to finish college. And advocates of the college prep curricula argue that the proliferation of AP courses at high schools has the serendipitous effect of raising educational standards and teaching quality for the entire campus. "The numbers of students who are choosing to participate in the AP program is a strong indicator of a strong school," says Martha Salmon, spokesperson for the College Board, the organization that administers AP testing.
And while minority participation may still be low, Salmon points out, blacks and Hispanics have tripled and quadrupled their showing in the last five years, outpacing whites. Texas' promotion of AP testing, Salmon says, is "not perfect, but it's better than anything anyone else is doing across the United States."
Fuller agrees for the most part, but says equal educational opportunity in Texas is still a distant dream. School districts such as AISD deserve a lot of credit for promoting higher standards, he says, but school ranking systems such as Newsweek's tends to favor wealthier, racially homogenous schools and discourage schools with scarcer resources.
The notorious teacher shortage in Texas strikes poor and minority schools hardest, Fuller notes, where typically only about half of all math teachers are certified to teach their subjects; less than two-thirds of Texas high schools are able to offer any AP classes at all.
That doesn't mean those schools don't do well by their students, says University of Texas Admissions Director Bruce Walker. "The ranking of schools based on how well they do these tests is in itself not a true measure of a school's value to its community," says Walker.
Del Valle school superintendent James Stewart has spent more than 30 years learning that lesson at rural districts across Texas. Del Valle ISD is locally renowned for its efforts to lift working-class students into the college ranks, but didn't show up in Newsweek's poll despite tripling its AP participation since 1995. Stewart, who is leaving his post for a consulting job this spring, says the Texas education system undervalues the contributions of poorer districts. "It's one of the reasons I'm getting out of this profession, and it bothers the daylights out of me -- the state's organizational culture gives awards and recognition based on criteria that aren't fair," he says.