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City Honors' rankings tied to tougher tests Some criticize school's shift in focus

For the past several years, City Honors School has ranked among the best in the state and nation. This year, in fact, it was identified as the No. 1 high school in New York State and the Northeast, according to the Washington Post and Newsweek.

U.S. News & World Report awarded City Honors another "gold medal" this year, ranking it the 23rd-best high school in the United States. Newsweek ranked it the 19th-best in the country.

What's the key to the school's success? College-level tests.

All three national ranking systems put a major emphasis on the number of college-level tests taken by students at a school. Students at City Honors are taking far more of the tests today than they were a decade ago, the school's records indicate.

Some say the increase is driven by a more avid interest from students and parents looking for college-level challenges.

"Families are looking to differentiate their students' studies. We've got more kids taking [Advanced Placement] and [International Baccalaureate] now," said City Honors Principal William Kresse. "We don't design our curriculum around the rankings."

But, he says, the rankings themselves seem to generate more interest among families in the school's AP and IB offerings.

Others say that over the past several years, the school's administration has put more emphasis on academics than on what many recall as a more nurturing atmosphere at one time.

"The rise of AP and IB has definitely affected the way the school is run and the atmosphere of the community and what the focus is," said Laura Bernas, a 2009 graduate who now attends Sarah Lawrence College. "It became all about getting your IB diploma and doing the best you could and getting into the best possible college. I felt it was this pressure cooker."

Whatever the reason for the increase in college-level tests, it's clear that the result helps City Honors in the national rankings. The more AP and IB exams that students take at a school, the better the school's ranking. The Washington Post, in fact, uses that as its sole criterion. The paper takes the number of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate tests given in a year and divides by the number of graduating seniors.

"While not a measure of the overall quality of the school, the rating can reveal the level of a high school's commitment to preparing average students for college," Post education columnist Jay Matthews explains online.

City Honors has long been a magnet program in Buffalo with a focus on college prep -- and one of the most competitive high school programs in the city. This year, more than 1,100 students vied for 150 open seats in the school, which houses grades five to 12.

A decade ago, City Honors students took 289 IB exams; last year, it was 518. The size of the student body has remained roughly the same.

Information on AP exams was available from the school for only five years. Over that time, there was a minor increase, from 420 AP exams taken to 467 last year -- with a one-year spike in 2010 of 563.

A certain number of those tests can be attributed to the school's requirements, which Kresse says have remained largely unchanged for years. All students are required to take three AP courses -- literature, U.S. history and world history -- and IB literature, a two-year course taken in junior and senior years.

At the end of their sophomore year, students are given the option of enrolling in the IB diploma program, which requires students to take additional IB courses before graduation.

In the past decade, the number of seniors in the diploma program has more than tripled, from 16 to 54.

Beyond what's required, some students opt to take additional AP or IB courses as electives -- even forgoing a lunch period to cram in an extra class, in some cases -- in the hopes of scoring high enough on the exams to get college credit or strengthening their college application by taking more rigorous classes.

As more and more students at City Honors are signing up for the AP and IB courses, performance on those exams has either remained generally flat or fallen somewhat, school records show.

In each of the past five years, for example, slightly less than half of City Honors students taking an AP exam scored at least a 3 on a scale of 1 to 5, meaning they were likely to be able to get college credit. Statewide, about two-thirds of students taking AP exams score at least a 3.

At City Honors, while the number of seniors working toward an IB diploma has increased substantially, the percentage of those who succeed in getting it has decreased, from 81 percent a decade ago to 72 percent last year.

Talk of the school's performance frequently leads to debate over what some say is a two-tier public education system in Buffalo, with schools like City Honors drawing the strongest students, leaving others like Burgard and Riverside to serve the most disadvantaged students.

"I don't think we should be so congratulatory about shoveling all the good test-taking students into one school," said 2007 City Honors graduate Jack Kavanaugh, who also lauded his experience at the school. "We are congratulating ourselves so much for this one outlier school when there are so many others that aren't so great."

Kresse says the school's overall effect on other public schools in the city is minimal.

City Honors enrolls fewer than 900 students, out of more than 32,000 enrolled throughout the district.