WEST ESSEX AREA, NJ — When the Washington Post analyzed advanced placement tests and graduating senior rates for the nation’s high schools, James Caldwell High School and West Essex Regional High School were considered two of “America’s Most Challenging High Schools.” The annual Washington Post report ranked 2,300 out of a possible 22,000 high schools throughout the United States and officially listed West Essex Regional High School at 1280, and James Caldwell High School at 2287.

According to the methodology for the ranking, the Washington Post took the total number of Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB) and Advanced International Certificate of Education (AICE) tests given at a high school each year and divided that by the number of seniors who graduated in May or June. The formula is known as the “Challenge Index.”

“With a few exceptions, public schools that achieved a ratio of at least 1.00, meaning they had as many tests in 2014 as they had graduates, were put on the national list,” Washington Post Education Columnist Jay Mathews said. “We rank the schools in order of ratio, with the highest (20.44) this year achieved by BASIS Oro Valley, in Oro Valley, AZ.” 

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The Challenge Index score is the number of college-level tests given at a school in the previous calendar year divided by the number of graduates that year. According to Mathews, the ranking counts only the number of tests given, rather than the grades on these tests because he believes many high schools keep these rates “artificially high” by allowing only top students to take the courses. They said AP, IB and AICE courses are important to consider because they give average students a chance to experience the trauma of heavy college reading lists and long, analytical college exams.

“Research has found that even low-performing students who got a 2 on an AP test did significantly better in college than similar students who did not take AP,” Mathews said of the methodology. “Some schools brag about their high passing rates, meaning the percentage of test-takers who scored 3, 4, or 5 on the 5-point AP exam or 4, 5, 6 or 7 on the 7-point IB exam. Passing scores make students eligible for credit at many colleges and universities.”

According to the Washington Post, the list also gives readers a sense of how well students are scoring on tests by posting an Equity and Excellence rate. The Equity and Excellence rate is the percentage of all graduating seniors, including those who did not take AP courses, but scored a 3 or higher on at least one AP exam throughout their high school experience. The nonprofit College Board, which oversees the AP program, invented the metric used by the Washington Post

James Caldwell High School and West Essex Regional High School were both among the nation’s best in persuading average students to take college-level courses and tests. Schools that have no, or almost no, average students were ranked on a separate list called the “Public Elites List.” 

Other local regional high schools that placed on “America’s Most Challenge High Schools” included Millburn High School (752), West Orange High School (2016), Montclair High School (2322), Montville High School (1600), Verona High School (921), Columbia High School (1541), Newark Academy (115) and Livingston High School (1294).