6 Maine schools make national list of most challenging high schools

Mel MacKay, head of John Bapst Memorial High School stands on the sidewalk outside the school as classes let out in Sept. 2009.
John Clarke Russ | BDN
Mel MacKay, head of John Bapst Memorial High School stands on the sidewalk outside the school as classes let out in Sept. 2009. Buy Photo
Posted April 09, 2014, at 8:43 a.m.
Last modified April 09, 2014, at 6:46 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor is the most challenging high school in northern New England, according to a list compiled by the Washington Post.

“America’s Most Challenging High Schools,” created every year by the news organization, ranked the local private school 379th out of 2,029 high schools nationwide, closely followed by Falmouth High School at 407th.

Yarmouth High School, Bangor High School, Camden Hills Regional High School and Greenville Consolidated School were the other Maine schools to make the list, which was released Monday.

The rankings attempt to reward schools that give students access to college level classes. To determine which schools made the list, Washington Post reporter Jay Matthews divided the number of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Advanced International Certificate of Education tests given at each school by the number of seniors who graduated in the spring, he said in an explanation of the list, published by the paper.

Schools are then ranked based on ratio of graduating seniors to tests administered, Matthews said. Only schools that achieved a ratio of one or more, meaning the school administered the same number of tests as there were students who graduated, made the list. Theoretically, only schools where every graduating senior took at least one of these tests would make the list, but at many schools, some students took more than one test.

The resulting score for each school is based off the ratio, not out of a total number.

The highest ranking school, American Indian Public Charter in Oakland, Calif, received a score of 21.91.

John Bapst’s score was 3.33. Head of school Mel McKay said 70 percent of John Bapst students take at least one of the 17 Advanced Placement exams offered. John Bapst has a graduation rate of 99 percent and a college enrollment rate of about 98 percent.

“We’re delighted,” MacKay said Tuesday.

“For a Bangor city councilor or an area realtor … this is a pretty big feather in our cap to have both a high quality private school and a high quality public school make the list,” he said.

John Bapst is more selective than public schools in Maine, but MacKay said the acceptance rate for day students applying is over 90 percent.

Bangor High School’s score was 1.37. Principal Paul Butler said 37.4 percent of seniors took an Advanced Placement exam last year.

“We believe that all students are capable and should have access to Advanced Placement courses,” said Bangor Superintendent Betsy Webb. “And that’s regardless of their background and socio-economic status. … We have decades of data to show that students, given the opportunity, will rise to the challenge.”

The Washington Post intentionally does not include student scores on the tests when calculating the ranking.

“I decided not to count passing rates in this way because I found that many high schools kept those rates artificially high by allowing only top students to take the courses. AP, IB and AICE are important because they give average students a chance to experience the trauma of heavy college reading lists and long, analytical college examinations,” said Matthews. “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.”

Advanced Placement tests are scored up to 5. A 3 is considered a passing grade.

In the same vein, schools that have exceptionally high average SAT and ACT scores were excluded from the list.

Mathews explained this list “is designed to identify schools that have done the best job in persuading average students to take college-level courses and tests.”

The list does note the percentage of students who pass at least one exam, along with the percentage who come from families that qualify for free and reduced lunch, though those metrics are not part of the ranking.

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