Once again Jay Mathews, a reporter for the Washington Post, has released his Challenge Index, the ranking of high schools determined by calculating the number of college level tests taken in a given year divided by the number of graduating seniors.

I was happy to see that McLean High School (where I taught before retiring from teaching and coming to work for CEP) was ranked 13th on the list of schools in the Washington, DC area. It was the highest ranked school in Fairfax County Public School District, a fact that I’m sure made the folks on the McLean faculty proud—especially since they were also ranked high in the national list of the top 200 high schools.  I’m sure there is lots of celebrating going on in schools all over who consider themselves to be among the best high schools in America because they made the list.

But is that legitimate? I agree with Mathews on the need to offer challenging courses to anyone who wants to try. As a former Advanced Placement English teacher, I’ve seen kids who had never taken an advanced class before rise to the challenge in my class. Even if they didn’t pass the test, the introduction to the advanced curriculum and the struggle to learn pays dividends in college, which is what Mathews has found through his research. But being a good school requires so much more than that.

CEP recently released its own list of outstanding schools, the 2011 National Schools of Character. Here are 44 schools that are giving their best efforts to develop caring learning communities where students are engaged, motivated, and succeeding. Each and every one of these schools is a beacon of light showing what good things happen when schools move past the test and embrace all aspects of child development. But the process to evaluate these schools is based on much more than test scores and requires an in-depth analysis of each school’s individual culture, rather than a comparison against other schools. Each of these schools has documented its success in meeting the guidelines of CEP’s 11 Principles of Effective Character Education.

I’d like these schools to get even a fraction of the coverage Mathew’s Challenge Index gets, and I’d like to see more schools want to achieve school of character status rather than worry about a numbered ranking. It’s the overall focus on the student’s well being and not just test rankings that will make a difference.