Rhode Island is one of only a handful of states to not have a single school included in the Washington Post's annual High School Challenge, a ranking of more than 1,900 high schools throughout the country.
The reason: Rhode Island students are significantly behind the national average when it comes to taking Advanced Placement (AP) exams, and near the bottom of the country when it comes to passing them. In the class of 2010, only 17.9 percent of Ocean State students took an AP exam (compared with 28.3 percent nationally) and just 10.9 passed (compared with 16.9 percent nationally), according to a report issued by the College Board.
According to The Post, the formula used to rank the schools was to "divide the number of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or other college-level tests a school gave in 2010 by the number of graduating seniors." The goal wasn't to measure to overall quality of the schools, but simply to track how well they are preparing "average students" for college.
The top 10 schools on the list came from seven different states, including Texas (3), Florida (2), Oregon, Arizona, Alabama, Indiana and New York.
College Advisor: Not Surprising
The rankings were compiled by well-known Post education columnist Jay Mathews. In an interview with GoLocalProv, Mathews said this was the second consecutive year a Rhode Island high school has not made the list. While he did not connect with every school in the state, he said that he reached out to many of the schools that appeared near the top of GoLocalProv's high school rankings last month, including Barrington High School, Classical High School, East Greenwich High School and Scituate High School.
The lack of Rhode Island schools on The Post's list came as no surprise to Cristiana Quinn, the founder of College Admission Advisors, LLC and a GoLocalProv college admissions expert. Quinn said there are certainly some schools doing a better job than others, but the state is known for not offering enough AP or International Baccalaureate (IB) courses.
"I work with students from all over and I see this all the time," Quinn said. "In other states, students are taking AP courses in tenth, eleventh and twelfth grade, sometimes even in ninth grade. Many schools aren't offering that in Rhode Island."
The Importance Of Advanced Courses
While Quinn doesn't believe college admissions officers would be scared away by Rhode Island schools not making The Post's rankings, she said AP courses and the IB programs are important to colleges because they're the same in every part of the country.
"IB and AP have a standardized curriculum," she said. "Biology in Barrington and biology in Woonsocket can be different. In an era of grade inflation in our schools, IB and AP are gold to colleges."
The College Board, which authors an annual report on the nation's performance on AP exams, suggests that AP coursework isn't just impressive to college admissions officers; it also means students will likely remain - and succeed - in college.
According to a 2009 study by the College Board, "students who scored 3 or higher on four popular AP Exams earned higher first-year GPAs, were more likely to continue on to a second year of college, and were more likely to attend selective institutions, on average, than students with comparable SAT scores and high school GPAs who did not take AP. Even students who scored a 1 or 2 on an AP Exam showed higher retention rates into their second year of college than non-AP students, and they were more likely to attend selective institutions.
Education Commissioner: Rhode Island Schools Are Improving
State Education Commissioner Deborah Gist (left) agreed that it is important for more AP courses to be offered in Rhode Island schools. She said one of the Department of Education's goals has been to ensure that all students have equal and ample opportunities to take challenging courses.
"AP courses and other challenging high-school courses inspire students to do their best work and to achieve at performance levels of 'proficient' and 'proficient with distinction'," Gist said. "AP courses can also serve as an excellent bridge between high school and college – preparing students for challenging college-level courses and providing students with college credits that can lead to early graduation or opportunities for more advanced study."
Schools Offering More AP Course Work
According to Quinn, one of the reasons the state doesn't have more AP or IB courses is that it costs a lot of money to get teachers properly prepared to teach them. Other states appear more willing to invest in these programs.
But Gist said Rhode Island schools have increased participation when it comes to to advanced course work. Over the last decade, the number of seniors leaving high school that have taken at least one AP exam has increased from 903 in 2001 to 1,795 in 2010. The number of students passing has more than doubled in that time, from 530 to 1,095.
"Rhode Island schools have taken steps to expand participation in AP courses," she said. "Providence, for example, which used to offer AP courses in only one or two high schools, now offers AP courses in all high schools and has a district-wide participation rate above 10 percent. Newport has an AP participation rate above 30 percent."
Ed Reformer: More Reason To Bring In Charter School
For Maryellen Butke (right), executive director of the Rhode Island Campaign for Achievement Now, the time for waiting is over. Many of the schools at the top of The Post's rankings are magnets or charter schools, which is why she is pushing for more high-performing charter schools to come to Rhode Island.
In recent weeks, Achievement First, the charter management organization that has schools in New York and Connecticut, and hopes to come to Cranston for the start of the 2012 school year, has been criticized by vocal opponents during public hearings. But Butke says Achievement First is precisely the type of organization Rhode Island needs.
"It's ironic that Rhode Island would consider barring its students from accessing one of the best-performing schools in the country just when these rankings come out," Butke said.
Achievement First, which operates 19 elementary, middle and high schools, does not have either of its high schools on the list.
Gist: We Expect Improvement
Gist agreed that there is still plenty of work to be done.
"We still fall below the national average on AP participation, but we expect to see continued improvement in AP participation and results in future years," she said.