Newport-Mesa schools score well on AP tests

Recent data from a national magazine that crunched numbers and compiled percentages from Advanced Placement test scores would seem to upend the age-old notion that students who attend high schools in wealthier neighborhoods automatically achieve better test scores.

In Newsweek's June compilation of America's Top High Schools, which tallied up the Advanced Placement scores at 27,000 high schools across the country, Costa Mesa High School ranked 1,500th and Estancia High School came in at 1,148th. Woodbridge High School in Irvine was 1,490th, while Irvine High School was 993rd.

In all, University High School in Irvine received the best ranking at 146th, Corona del Mar High School, 190th, and Newport Harbor High School came in at 1,395. The two best scores in Orange County were Oxford Academy in Cypress, which received an 11th overall ranking while Troy High School in Fullerton was 55th.

All of the high schools in the Newport-Mesa and Irvine Unified districts made the top sixth percentile. In short, the percentage of students, accumulatively speaking, scored above the national average of 15%.

The results of the data were based on a relatively new formula that tries to show how well students are doing on the AP exams at each school by calculating the number of students who take the exam, which is on par with college-level material.

The statistic, called the Equity and Excellence rate, factors in all graduating seniors who took at least one Advanced Placement test and scored a 3 or above (on a 5-point scale, 3 being passing) at some point in their high school career.

The recent rankings surprised Back Bay High School math teacher Dennis Ashendorf.

"If you look at the rankings, especially between Estancia High School and Woodbridge High School, it's amazing," he said. "They did better than Woodbridge. It's the sort of thing I think Realtors should take a look at or might not want to see, actually. I mean, here we've got people spending hundreds of thousands of dollars extra to live in Irvine for the school district, and the kids at Estancia High School are doing just as well, if not better."

What it really means, Ashendorf added, is that "Irvine is overrated and Costa Mesa is underrated."

Equally fascinating is the level of poverty at Estancia and Costa Mesa high schools versus Woodbridge and Irvine high schools. Nearly 65% and 75% of the student body qualifies for free lunches at Estancia and Costa Mesa high schools, while the rate is 6% at Woodbridge and 10% at Irvine 10%.

While Ashendorf's level of enthusiasm was virtually unbridled, Ian Hanigan, a spokesman with the Irvine Unified School District, said not so fast. As a reporter covering education for nearly a decade for daily newspapers and now a spokesman for the district, he said the AP tests are certainly not the litmus test to what constitutes a good school.

"Obviously, there are many ways that you can rank high schools, and Newsweek has focused on the AP test," he said. "It's a good conversation starter, but I wouldn't say it is the be all and end all of what makes a successful high school."

Hanigan said the formula concocted by Newsweek is not "an accurate measure of a school's overall academic performance."

And if you want to talk test scores, he said, then why not take a gander at the state's Academic Performance Index, which annually uses a complex formula to condense scores from California Standards Tests into triple-digit figures on a scale of 200 to 1,000.

Last year Woodbridge scored 857 while Costa Mesa High School scored 735 and Estancia High School scored 726.

"The bottom line is that they are all very good schools," Hanigan said. "Even the Academic Performance Index fails to give a total picture of all the great things that are happening on each campus."

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