Top rated value-added school: Extreme test prep or well-rounded experience? A student’s perspective


A recent Charlotte Observer article provided a thoughtful investigation of growth and achievement in North Carolina’s Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools). The article juxtaposed two very different, yet highly effective, schools. The first, Ranson Middle School, is a low-achieving school with 84% poverty that demonstrated the highest academic growth of any similar school.

The second school, and the focus of this blog, is Ardrey Kell High School, a high achieving school with low poverty and the highest student growth in CMS.   (Note: Public reporting on this academic growth in NC can be found at:

I have offered my thoughts in a past blog about teachers narrowing their curriculum, teaching to the test, or using “kill and drill” test-prep techniques. However, I wanted to get a student’s perspective. So I interviewed a fabulous former student of mine, Kelsey Williamson, who recently graduated from Ardrey Kell HS and is a freshman at North Carolina State University, to find out her opinion. I want to explore, through a student’s eyes, a high-performing school in a state where value-added measures (VAMs) are used as a part of school accountability and teacher evaluation. Did she feel additional pressures as an unintended consequence at AKHS?

Nadja: What is so special about AKHS that contributed to their impressive student growth and achievement?

Kelsey: The teachers and the staff. The rigor of classes is no joke. I didn’t know this until I came to college and started talking to my friends about what their AP classes were like. Many of my college friends said their teachers told them “not to bother” taking AP exams since “no one will do well.” At Ardrey Kell, however, many of us left the AP tests feeling confident and our scores showed it!

Nadja: How did it feel to be a student in such a rigorous, high-performing school?

Kelsey: I loved Ardrey Kell and I was aware that AK was preparing (and even over-preparing) me for college. Ardrey Kell gave me more opportunities to push myself and thrive.

Nadja: Did you experience a lot of “kill and drill” test prep?

Kelsey: I did not feel like AK was intensely focused on test scores. For example, every day in my Biology class we did some sort of lab, visual, illustration, in-class project, you name it! Some examples included making little booklets and models or acting out processes in skits. What I didn’t realize was how much I was learning without having to go home and memorize pages of notes. I was learning without hours upon hours of studying. Not only that, what I learned has stuck with me. As a Biology major, not a day goes by when I don’t need to reference something I learned in my AP Biology class. I was able to get credit for freshman Biology and have been adequately prepared for both next-level courses: Anatomy and Genetics.

Nadja: What did teachers do differently to push all students (at all achievement levels- low, middle, high) to grow so much?

Kelsey: I do believe that the key difference is empowering students by setting reasonable expectations. I hear so many horror stories about teachers from other schools who don’t teach and then give insanely hard tests that bring students great frustration. Those students feel like success is out of their control. When teachers teach well and give fair (not easy, but fair) tests and assignments, students are more empowered to put forth effort. They know that the effort will be shown in their grade, and that is a wonderful feeling. Every teacher offers some type of after or before school help for students who need it. Never once have I felt like I had no way to find the answers or help with confusion.

Nadja: Aside from teachers and instruction, what did you appreciate about Ardrey Kell programs and leadership?

Kelsey: The A day/B day schedule is genius. Being both similar to college courses and allowing more time for learning and studying, I felt like all curriculum was better understood because of this schedule format. This allowed for year-long AP classes where I successfully earned 37 college credits. I cannot praise Ardrey Kell without mentioning Principal Switzer. Teachers respect him immensely and students love him too. This man genuinely cares about students and it shows in how well he knows most everyone. If Principal Switzer was coming my way in the halls, I knew I was going to receive a “Hi Kelsey! How are you?” A student suggestion box in the library allows students to have a voice in school improvement and monthly “Coffee with Switzer” events let select students sit down with him and talk further. He attends many sporting events, and works closely with all student-led organizations giving them lots of approvals to do different activities, events, etc. What an honor it is to be able to write such praise about my high school, and truly mean it!

I was pleased to hear this kind of feedback from Kelsey that not only can a school be high achieving, but it can also push all students to grow (a common misconception I’ve written about here.) Furthermore, in order to make this growth happen, a school can still be well-rounded and foster a love of learning, sports, arts and clubs. As the Ranson MS administrator stated in the highlighted article, “Tests are never the primary goal. That comes when graduates succeed in college or the workforce.” I’m proud to see Kelsey doing just that!



About Author

Nadja Young

Senior Manager, Education Consulting

Hi, I’m Nadja Young. I’m a wife and mother of two who loves to dance, cook, and travel. As SAS’ Senior Manager for Education Industry Consulting, I strive to help education agencies turn data into actionable information to better serve children and families. I aim to bridge the gaps between analysts, practitioners, and policy makers to put data to better use to improve student outcomes. Prior to joining SAS, I spent seven years as a high school Career and Technical Education teacher certified by the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards. I taught in Colorado’s Douglas County School District, in North Carolina’s Wake County Public School System, and contracted with the NC Department of Public Instruction to write curriculum and assessments. I’m thrilled to be able to combine my Bachelor of Science degree in Marketing Management and Master of Arts degree in Secondary Education to improve schools across the country.

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