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Is CMS Challenging Enough? A Look At The District Through The Challenge Index

How challenging are Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools? We take a look through the Challenge Index.
How challenging are Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools? We take a look through the Challenge Index.


Twenty years ago, at a critical moment in the history of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, data analyst Mike Huggins wheeled a cart stacked with computer printouts into the office of newly-arrived district superintendent Eric J. Smith.

Jay Mathews
Jay Mathews

It was long past the usual 5 p.m. quitting time. The district was struggling with a seemingly endless federal desegregation lawsuit. Other superintendents might have cringed at all those papers in the cart, but Smith loved data and noticed that Huggins was excited.

The analyst handed the tall, bespectacled, 48-year-old superintendent a very short stack of printouts that listed all minority students in the district who were enrolled in Advanced Placement, the college-level program usually reserved for only top students. It was rare for black and Hispanic students without college-educated parents to take AP. What was so surprising about the stack’s small size?

The answer to that question would spark startling growth in advanced learning in CMS that continues today. Huggins put his hand on another stack of printouts, much larger. This, he said, was the list of all minority students in the district who were not enrolled in AP but had PSAT scores indicating they were ready to tackle those tough courses and exams.

Smith was delighted. He had figured out long ago, from his years as a science teacher and administrator in Florida, that many more minority students had the potential to do well in AP than were ever encouraged to take it. But this was solid proof. Even the biggest doubters of the hidden talents of impoverished children could not deny the numbers that Huggins had compiled.

About the same time Smith and Huggins were making their discovery, I was finishing a book about the American failure to challenge average and below-average high school students. I had spent five years on an earlier book about Garfield High School in East Los Angeles. It had opened its AP courses to everyone and found that hundreds of Hispanic students from low-income families could pass them and get college credit.

I had then moved to Westchester County, N.Y., and discovered — to my surprise — that some of the most affluent public schools in the country also barred their average students from AP. It was easier to understand why Garfield had once done that, since impoverished students were generally regarded as not ready for AP. But Garfield calculus teachers Jaime Escalante and Ben Jimenez had shown even those students could blossom if given extra time and encouragement to learn.

These unexpected results became an obsession for me. I heard about Eric Smith’s work in Charlotte-Mecklenburg and other districts, as well as other teachers’ successes in other parts of the country.

I devised a way of detecting which schools were doing the best job fulfilling the potential of previously overlooked students. I call it the Challenge Index and have used it for 20 years to compile the Washington Post’s annual America’s Most Challenging High Schools list. The index is a ratio for each high school: the number of AP, International Baccalaureate or Cambridge tests given divided by the number of seniors who graduated that year from the school.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s results on the index are a good example of what can be done in even a big district with many disadvantaged students. Based on 2017 data, 19 Charlotte-Mecklenburg high schools qualify for inclusion on the Challenge Index list by having at least as many AP, IB and Cambridge tests as they had graduating seniors. Nineteen schools is a very large number for a district the size of CMS. This recognition is earned by only 12 percent of U.S. schools, such as the top-ranked BASIS charter schools in Arizona and Mickey Leland College Prep in Houston, both of which have a strong number of minority students. The first six Charlotte-Mecklenburg high schools on the list are Ardrey Kell, Myers Park, Providence, Hough, South Mecklenburg and East Mecklenburg. They all rank in the top 4 percent of high schools nationally, measured this way.

On the Challenge Index list, I also give the equity and excellence percentage, the portion of all graduating seniors who passed at least one AP, IB or Cambridge test. The passing rate is important, but the data shows that even if a student fails the exam, the experience of taking the course and test makes her or him more likely to graduate from college in four years or less.

Comparisons show that even Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools with a majority of low-income students do very well on the list. Take for instance North Mecklenburg High, where 54 percent of the students are low income. It has a ratio of 1.96 on the Challenge Index list. In comparison, Hibriten High School in Caldwell County has a slightly lower percentage of low-income students — 53 percent — but a much lower Challenge Index ratio of 0.668. It does not make the Most Challenging list.

Hopewell High in Charlotte-Mecklenburg is 50 percent low income and has a ratio of 1.665, much higher than the 0.945 ratio at South Caldwell High, which is 46 percent low income. However, the Caldwell County schools are not doing badly. South Caldwell’s index ratio is above average, but they don’t come close to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, where such an unusual effort has been made to challenge average students.

The highest-ranking Charlotte-Mecklenburg high schools, Ardrey Kell at 4.324 and Myers Park at 4.263, even match up well in comparison to Charlotte private schools such as Charlotte Latin (4.402) and Charlotte Country Day (4.187).

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg results are the work of a large, well-coordinated team of teachers and administrators, now led by superintendent Clayton Wilcox, who are giving more students a chance at rigorous coursework.

When Smith was superintendent two decades ago, he and his staff took the data Huggins had developed and sent letters to all parents with sons or daughters whose PSAT scores indicated the possibility of success in AP. The parents were urged to schedule guidance counselor appointments to enroll their children in the college-level courses. Counselors were encouraged and trained to break through any red tape in students’ way.

"We found that many high schools simply didn't offer many of the AP courses even though they had students that had the potential for success."

“We also reviewed what we called ‘AP Potential’ in each of our high schools and compared it to AP courses actually offered in each school,” Smith told me recently. “We found that many high schools simply didn’t offer many of the AP courses even though they had students that had the potential for success.”

Today, Charlotte-Mecklenburg educators continue to check all students for AP potential, something that very few school districts do.

“We routinely monitor 10th- and 11th-grade students’ PSAT performance,” said Latisha Hensley, a district official instrumental in that effort. “We complement that data monitoring with practices to broaden our definition of AP potential to identify additional students that may be ready or seeking extra challenge.”

Charlotte-Mecklenburg does not yet allow every student to take any AP or IB courses they want, although it comes close. Students still need to take prerequisite courses, such as Chemistry 1 before they take AP Chemistry, a College Board recommendation Also, students without IB experience who want to take IB-related courses in middle or high school must first be admitted to IB magnet programs, which has a lottery and requires each student to read on grade level and pass at least three IB courses each year. I do not think that makes sense for all students. I think those barriers hurt students who would do better if exposed to engaging IB subject matter, such as the program’s much-praised Theory of Knowledge course.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg does insist that every student in an AP, IB or Cambridge course take the long, difficult exam at the end of each course or — a remarkable advance in the teaching of these courses — a similar exam written and graded by their teachers.

The key difference between the three programs and regular high school courses is that the official AP, IB and Cambridge exams are written and graded by outside experts. They don’t know the students or their families and cannot be pressured to go easy, as often happens in high schools.

An AP exam written and scored by a student’s teacher will not be protected from pressure to dumb it down, but in this case, it doesn’t matter. The teacher-written AP exam will not affect grades. It can’t earn college credit. What it will do, if the teacher-written test is as tough as a real one, is give the student a taste of a college-level exam, three hours of difficult questions, many requiring critical thinking. That is a valuable contribution to their ability to handle college in coming years.

I have spent 37 years watching AP and IB courses in action. In a district such as Charlotte-Mecklenburg, there is a genuine effort by teachers and students to conquer these college-level exams. AP and IB were once seen as just for rich kids. But at CMS, average students — including those whose parents never went to college — are welcomed in. In other similar districts, I’ve seen many traditional high school habits, like extra credit to inflate grades and movies to fill time, begin to disappear.

To identify and recruit more minority students for these advanced programs, CMS has partnered with Seattle-based Equal Opportunity Schools, a nonprofit founded by Reid Saaris. Saaris is an energetic young educator I met 11 years ago when he was teaching  IB in South Carolina. Through the end of the 2018 school year, his organization has collaborated with nearly 450 schools to identify about 46,000 low-income students and students of color ready for more academic challenges through surveys and other means.

"People who say that low-income children, minority children can't excel at extraordinary levels are flat out wrong. They just haven't seen the evidence."

Charlotte-Mecklenburg has also embraced Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID), the largest and I think the best-organized college-readiness program in the country. Its founder, English teacher Mary Catherine Swanson, started AVID in 1980 with a small class of low-income students being bussed into her suburban San Diego school.

AVID has produced the most unusual and effective approach to tutoring I have ever seen. Small groups of students take turns being on the hot seat. They let the other students in the group, with the tutor’s guidance, help them tackle a homework question that has them stumped. The student on the hot seat is asked leading questions that force him or her to rethink the question and come up with the answer.

There is much more to AVID — lessons on how to take notes (something few of us ever got in school), ways to organize one’s time, and most importantly how to prepare for AP or IB. “In our district, AVID is more than a program,” said Hensley, who is the AVID district director/advanced studies specialist. “It is a school-wide approach focusing on instruction, systems, leadership and culture to prepare students for success in a global society.”

Over the course of his career, Smith, the former CMS superintendent, became what I call the Johnny Appleseed of college-level high school courses. This began when he became a principal in Florida in 1982, six years before the film “Stand and Deliver” made Garfield High School’s AP success famous. Smith continued to plant crops of AP and IB courses as superintendent in Danville, Va., Newport News, Va., Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Anne Arundel County, Md.

In an interview with journalist Hedrick Smith of PBS in 2005, Eric Smith reflected on his time in Charlotte-Mecklenburg.  “We found that the pace of instruction—the speed by which content was being delivered—was different for the lower income, inner-city areas and the suburban areas,” he said. “People who say that low-income children, minority children can’t excel at extraordinary levels are flat out wrong. They just haven’t seen the evidence.”

“Our challenge was to help,” he said. “The thing I did not do was to blame the teacher. I didn’t see it as a teacher problem. What we saw was a central office problem. It was an administrative problem from central office in Charlotte that didn’t support the classroom teacher in understanding clearly what needed to be taught and at what level.”

Eric Smith became senior vice president for college readiness at the College Board in 2006 and education commissioner for the state of Florida in 2007. At 68, he serves now as a member of the board of trustees at AVID, which has taken its unusual tutoring practices and other innovations to nearly 1 million students in 47 states.

Like other educators leading this movement, Charlotte-Mecklenburg teachers are making their own innovations. The potential for improvement is always there, but as Smith and Huggins discovered in 1999, the only way to do that is to have faith in the talents of CMS teachers, counselors and administrators and let them know the district will give them all the support they need to raise all students to a higher level.   

Jay Mathews is an education columnist for The Washington Post, his employer for nearly 50 years. He is the author of nine books, including five about high schools. His 2009 book "Work Hard. Be Nice." about the birth and growth of the KIPP charter school network was a New York Times best-seller. He created and supervises the annual Challenge Index rankings known as America's Most Challenging High Schools.


Jay Mathews is an education columnist for The Washington Post, his employer for nearly 50 years. He is the author of nine books, including five about high schools. His 2009 book "Work Hard. Be Nice." about the birth and growth of the KIPP charter school network was a New York Times best-seller. He created and supervises the annual Challenge Index rankings known as America's Most Challenging High Schools.