In our view: Academic Acclaim

Newsweek honors three local high schools; AP courses led to national rankings

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While offering high praise recently for three Clark County high schools, Newsweek magazine also reminded us about the value of providing crucial assistance to academically gifted students. In this case, that extra incentive has been extended in the form of Advanced Placement courses.

As Howard Buck reported in Tuesday’s Columbian, Newsweek has released its annual “America’s Best High Schools,” which includes 1,600, or about 6 percent, of the nation’s high schools. Local residents should take great pride in the presence of Union High School (572nd nationally and eighth among 32 Washington state schools listed), Mountain View High School (680th and 11th, respectively) and Columbia River High School (1,573rd and 32nd) on the prestigious list.

Union and Mountain View are in the Evergreen district; Columbia River is in the Vancouver district, which also has contributed Skyview High School to the Newsweek rankings in previous years. (Another note from the Vancouver district: The Vancouver School of Arts and Academics has a long record of academic success. Newsweek, though, did not include magnet and other specialty schools in the list because only schools with typical or average student bodies were considered).

Another source of local pride is one of the key criteria used in the rankings: the number of Advanced Placement (AP) tests taken at the schools, compared with the number of graduates. AP courses, offered at many Clark County high schools, provide powerful benefits to three groups of people: Students love getting college credit for passing AP courses. Parents love the way AP courses give their kids a head start on — and help reduce the cost of — higher education. Even though AP tests cost more than $85 each, it’s still a bargain when you look at tuition costs. Third, taxpayers love the way AP courses make higher education more efficient, expediting advanced students through the pipeline and opening college classroom spots for other students. (Columbia River High School offers an International Baccalaureate program, which includes exams comparable to AP tests).

One of the glories of the AP program is that it benefits even students who do not pass the final tests; that’s why Newsweek considers only tests taken, not passed. Newsweek education reporter Jay Mathews writes that AP exam attempts are valuable “because they give average students a chance to experience the trauma of heavy college reading lists and long, analytical college examinations.” That in itself is a worthwhile preparation for college, even if the college credit is not earned in high school.

The lone down side to this story can be traced to 2008. It’s unfortunate that our state didn’t land a $13.2 million grant that was blocked by teachers union objections that the money would not have gone to all teachers. The grant from the Texas-based National Math and Science Initiative would have helped seven school districts expand AP course offerings. After the Washington Education Association protested, the grant was lost. The money went to six other “right-to-work” states that are tied to academic innovation instead of to preserving unions.

Union, Mountain View and Columbia River high schools deserve robust applause for the national rankings in Newsweek.