A reader who takes the sobriquet “Democracy” adds this comment about Jay Mathews’ high school rankings, as critiqued by Carol Burris:

I can appreciate Carol Burris’s critique of Jay Mathews Challenge Index. But her criticism falls way short. Advanced Placement is NOT what Mathews – or Burris – thinks it is. And Burris is wrong; Mathews should NOT make two Challenge Index lists; he should make none at all.

The Challenge Index has always been a phony list that doesn’t do much except to laud AP courses and tests. The Index is based on Jay Mathews’ dubious assumption that AP is inherently “better” than other high school classes in which students are encouraged and taught to think critically. The research on AP makes clear that it is more hype than anything else.

Let’s examine only a few of the ludicrous statements that Mathews makes, and then dig into the research on AP.

Mathews: “AP courses mimic introductory college courses in state universities. The final exams are written and graded by outside experts and thus are immune to the tendency in high schools to go easy on students…”

Oh, dear God. The truth is that AP courses do not come close to replicating college courses.

As one student remarked, after taking the World History AP test, “dear jesus… I had hoped to never see “DBQ” ever again, after AP world history… so much hate… so much hate.” And another added, “I was pretty fond of the DBQ’s, actually, because you didn’t really have to know anything about the subject, you could just make it all up after reading the documents.” Another AP student related how “high achievers” in his school approached AP tests:

“The majority of high-achieving kids in my buddies’ and my AP classes couldn’t [care]. They showed up for most of the classes, sure, and they did their best to keep up with the grades because they didn’t want their GPAs to drop, but when it came time to take the tests, they drew pictures on the AP Calc, answered just ‘C’ on the AP World History, and would finish sections of the AP Chem in, like, 5 minutes. I had one buddy who took an hour-and-a-half bathroom break during World History. The cops were almost called. They thought he was missing.”
The “outside experts” Mathews cites as the “graders” of AP exams are mostly high school AP teachers who read (rapidly) AP essays (the rest of the exams are machine scored). One of these “experts” discussed the types of essays he saw:

“I read AP exams in the past. Most memorable was an exam book with $5 taped to the page inside and the essay just said ‘please, have mercy.’ But I also got an angry breakup letter, a drawing of some astronauts, all kinds of random stuff. I can’t really remember it all… I read so many essays in such compressed time periods that it all blurs together when I try to remember.”

Many colleges and universities are finding that AP courses offer relatively little to students. A very large number of colleges restrict AP credit to test scores of only a 4 or 5 (for example, Baylor, Boston University, Chicago, Colorado, Northwestern,William and Mary). And many limit the number of credits that can be used. More (Boston College, MIT, Michigan, Washington University) are limiting scores to 5s or or not allowing AP credit whatsoever. As one AP test grader said, “the scores signify less and less. Anything under a 5 should be suspect. I wouldn’t give anyone college credit for an AP test grade if I had anything to do with it.”

Here’s another Mathews doozy:

“The growth of AP…participation has also been fueled by selective college admissions offices using that as a measure of a student’s readiness for higher education.”

Yet, more and more colleges are finding that AP is – in fact – NOT a measure of much of anything, except of a student’s desire to ge into the college of his or her choice, It’s a game.

The primary reason many students take AP is not to “learn” or to gain “college readiness,” but to game the admissions process. Students feel like they have to put AP on their transcripts or they won’t get into the college of their choice. It’s all about “looking good,” and boosting the grade point average.

One very honest AP teacher wrote recently that “Our district has told the counselors to promote the AP program with scare tactics that they will not get into the college of their choice, the district has incentivized taking the courses with up to 4.5 G.P.A. credit.” Yet, research chows clearly that the more weight AP courses are given, the less predictive power the weighted GPA has for college success. Dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb.

And, Mathews gives us this pearl:

“The National Math and Science Initiative has spent more than $200 million encouraging schools to add AP courses and motivate students to pass them, while training more teachers.”

The National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI) pushes for more STEM training in public schools, and purports “to bring best practices” to classrooms in order to “to reverse the recent decline in U.S. students’ math and science educational achievement.” NMSI claims to be the only group in the U.S. that “rigorously researched and replicated math and science programs that have produced immediate and sustainable results.” Three big problems present themselves though. First, there is no STEM crisis in the U.S., far from it. Second, there has been no “recent decline” in math and science achievement, And third, the “proven program” cited by NMSI most often is Advanced Placement, and the research just doesn’t support the claim.

Researchers Lindsay Lowell and Hall Salzman note in “Into the Eye of the Storm, that there is no STEM crisis in the U.S. They point out that “the math and science performance of high school graduates is not declining and show improvement for some grades and demographic groups.” They add that on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) “there has been no decline and even some improvement” in U.S. student scores. And they add this:

“The weight of the evidence surely indicates not decline but rather indicates on ongoing educational improvement for U.S. students. This improvement is not only in math and science but in all subjects tested and, importantly, occurs at the same time as a greater and more diverse proportion of the population is remaining in school…The notion that the United States trails the world in educational performance misrepresents the actual test results and reaches conclusions that are quite unfounded.”

Moreover, Lowell and Salzman make clear that there is no shortage of STEM workers. in fact, “the U.S. has been graduating more S&E [science and engineering] students than there have been S&E jobs” for quite a while, and “addressing the presumed labor market problems through a broad-based focus on the education system seems a misplaced effort.” They add that “policy proposals that call for more math and science education, aimed at increasing the number of scientists and engineers, do not square with the education performance and employment data.”

Beryl Lieff Benderly wrote this stunning statement recently in the Columbia Journalism Review:

“Leading experts on the STEM workforce, have said for years that the US produces ample numbers of excellent science students…according to the National Science Board’s authoritative publication Science and Engineering Indicators 2008, the country turns out three times as many STEM degrees as the economy can absorb into jobs related to their majors.”

This STEM focus may be trendy, but it is based on a fallacy. It’s a myth.

The National Math and Science Initiative is funded by the Gates and Dell Foundations (which seem to have a distaste for public schools), by defense contractors like Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin (which have laid off STEM workers), by ExxonMobil (which has funded and disseminated disinformation on climate change), by JP Morgan Chase (which sold toxic securities, defrauded the public, and helped to cause the Great Recession), by Boeing (which is subsidized by US taxpayers, pays a lower tax rate than most American workers, and has laid off thousands of STEM employees), and by the College Board, maker of the PSAT, SAT and AP courses and tests.

Meanwhile, some of the world’s biggest banks and trading companies gamed a “market” of some nearly $400 trillion interest-rate trades, and not in favor of the public. And, more recent disclosures reveal that traders and bankers have rigged the foreign exchange (FX) market, one that involves daily transactions of nearly $ 5 trillion, which is “the biggest in the financial system.” As one analyst noted, this is “the anchor of our entire economic system. Any rigging of the price mechanism leads to a misallocation of capital and is extremely costly to society.”

We have a person in the White House who ran a decidedly racist, xenophobic, and misogynist campaign, and who was helped into office by Russian intelligence agencies who hacked, leaked and falsified documents to harm his opponent, and who has fired the FBI director in an overt attempt to quash investigations into subversion of democracy. Yet, Jay is still pumping out drivel about America’s “best” schools based on a deeply flawed Index that he cooked up and that has no basis in research.

Sadly, Burris seems to support his mania over AP.

The Challenge Index is based mostly on the number of AP tests that a school gives. And the research on AP finds it to be more hype than useful educational tool. It’s past time to let it go. But will educators release it?