According to a recent listing of America's "top ranked high schools" in Newsweek magazine -- though it swims with tens of thousands of other public high schools, in a pond as enormous as the United States itself -- Malibu High School is one very big Shark.

Newsweek ranked the top schools according to each school's ratio of the number of Advanced Placement and/or International Baccalaureate exams taken per graduating senior in 1999. With a reported score of 1,712, Malibu came in 118th out of roughly 25,000 schools. The ranking suggests that, compared to other public schools, 8-year-old Malibu offers a challenging curriculum that provides students with strong preparation for college.

Newsweek writer Jay Mathews conducted the study and authored the March 13 article, "The Best High Schools."

"It's a very nice symbol of achievement," said Malibu Principal Michael Matthews. "Any time we get that kind of notoriety, everyone likes it; I've received notes of congratulations.

"For a small school [around 150 per class], we have a huge number of AP courses -- eight or nine," said Matthews. "I would put our school up against any in the area."

"Instruments for social and educational change," according to Newsweek, AP exams evaluate students' aptitude for grasping college-level concepts in more than 15 different subjects. Students generally prepare for the standardized, nationwide exams through rigorous, accelerated courses that have become de facto requirements for admission to selective colleges. (California schools do not offer International Baccalaureate courses.)

Newsweek's top-ranked school, Stanton College Prep in Jacksonville, Fla., administered more than four tests per student in 1999; Irvine University, the highest ranked California school, scored just over 2.5, while Santa Monica High's score of 1.49 placed it at 357th. By contrast, Viewpoint, a selective private school in Calabasas with fewer than 100 per class, offers more than 12 AP courses.

"Certainly being No. 118 out of [25,000] schools is excellent," said Patricia McDonough, chair of the Department of Education at UCLA. But, she said, because schools in relatively affluent communities tend to focus on college preparation, "It's no surprise that a school like Malibu is near the top."

Even in light of the community's affluence, Malibu achieved its ranking in the midst of budget struggles. Shortfalls have recently taken a toll on programs throughout the Santa Monica-Malibu School district, but faculty and administrators at Malibu have, according to Matthews, endeavored to "keep the academic status quo" regardless of budgetary pressures.

"Hopefully we keep the budget something adults worry about," said Matthews. "Kids worry about their homework, not a $2.1 million shortfall."

Though pronouncements of academic superiority may generate excitement and pride at Malibu and other highly ranked schools, UCLA's McDonough said any study claiming to identify the "best" high schools is "not particularly responsible." The surging popularity of school rankings, including U.S. News and World Report's annual college rankings, has roused consternation among educators such as McDonough, who likens them to popular "swimsuit issues."

A high ranking "allows people to feel good, but it doesn't do anything for the schools not on the list," said McDonough. "The danger is that it reinforces the notion of bragging rights … rather than a quality education."

"Clearly the ranking will look good," said John Rogers, director of research at Center X at the UCLA Graduate School of Education. "But I would encourage Malibu community members and educators to think about how they can promote democratic citizenship and serious intellectual life."

According to the article, Newsweek focused on AP enrollment -- as opposed to other statistics like grades or college admission -- because "what matters … is how rigorous and challenging students' high school courses are, no matter what grades they receive."

"I like [the study] because it doesn't just list the scores," said Matthews, adding he advocates access to AP courses because "teachers and students work together -- in kind of a player-coach relationship -- to achieve a goal. It's a wonderful situation."

The Newsweek data indicates the average Malibu student takes at least one AP class during his or her high school career. "I think that kind of rating fits perfectly with what our school is," said Matthews. "One of the good things about our school is that any student who wants the challenge of AP … gets to take those courses."

Despite the emphasis on advanced placement courses in certain schools, profound disparities among the nation's public schools all but negate the relevance of AP standards to all but a handful of top schools, according to McDonough. "I can't think of a rating system that could take into account the myriad factors that schools like Inglewood and [other inner-city schools] are dealing with that Malibu isn't," said McDonough.

Comparisons among schools may be complicated by inherent environmental situations that can dictate the character of public schools, many of which are hampered by conditions -- including tight budgets and overcrowding -- that may relegate AP and honors courses to unattainable luxuries.

Among public schools in general, "the critical issue is access to quality," said Guilbert Hentschke, Dean of USC's Rossier School of Education. "If they could, [many] people would send their kids to Malibu, and I'm sure people recognize that Malibu is a good school and have worked hard to send their kids there. With all respect to Malibu, it's a pretty good environment in which to work."

While Rogers noted only about half of California's high schools offer any AP courses at all, in Malibu, "AP is just a fact of life right now in high school," said PTA Executive Vice President Karen Farrer. "Kids applying to colleges have to have it."

Though high schools and colleges may embrace AP curricula as the highest denominator of achievement, the AP system still draws criticism.

"It's important for the Santa Monica-Malibu School District to take into account what its goals are," said Rogers. He said those goals may include character, citizenship and critical thinking, in addition to "serious intellectual work," adding "AP doesn't call upon the creativity and imaginative thinking that I look for in the best high school and the best college students."

And even at Malibu, the rigorous AP offerings that placed it on Newsweek's list do not necessarily apply to all students. In fact, the apparent benefits of being ranked 118th may elude entirely some students who remain in lower-level courses the study did not take into account.

"What this doesn't capture is how the school deals with other students" who may not be so highly motivated or accelerated, said Matthews. "We can't just be a school of high achievers. It has to be meaningful and successful for all students."

McDonough said every community presents individual needs and challenges, and "being responsive to parents is the most important" factor in creating successful schools. "Parents have never waited for rankings" to lobby for high academic standards, said McDonough. She said, however, she is troubled by rising academic pressures that may lead schools and parents to pile AP courses on students. "If it takes a 4.3 and a 1400 on the SAT and 14 honors courses to be an average student [among UC admittees]," said McDonough, "what kind of teen-agers are we creating?"

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