US News Pulls Rank!

US News has a new ranking of American high schools out today. The list is here, my take on what it means and why it matters here, and here is a paper explaining the methodology (pdf). WaPo story here, local and regional here.

A bit of background. In 2006 Sara Mead and I criticized Newsweek’s high school rankings. First, in this paper and then we subsequently debated the issue of what makes a good ranking with Jay Mathews, The Washington Post reporter who developed the Newsweek method called the “Challenge Index.” I’m obviously biased (because I had a hand in helping come up with this new method) but think it addresses the problems that Sara and I raised to the extent they can be addressed (a) with the data available today and (b) in an inter-state ranking. And, it represents measures that are more aligned with what high schools are expected to do today. So, as the kids say, props to US News. This list also shows the power of the work that S & P is doing on education and why Schoolmatters is a great resource (and it shows why S & P’s Paul Gazzerro is such a badass in our field).

Basically, the US News method doesn’t abandon the college prep focus of the Challenge Index. Instead, it augments it with a couple of screens intended to ensure that schools under consideration are providing a good education overall to their study body, and especially to disadvantaged students, as well as good college prep.

There is a lot of data on this list but a few quick takeaways that jump out already. Rural schools are under-represented on the list, obvious implications for policymakers there in terms of college-prep courses like Advanced Placement. Charter schools are over-represented, that’s indicative of the number that are focusing on college prep for urban kids. And some states are over/under represented. Lessons there, too.

The fact that the top high school is a selective one will cause some to write off the whole list. But, while 1 in 5 schools on the list are selective, that means 4 in 5, including some schools with diverse student bodies, also make it into this elite company. And, there are selective high schools that don’t make the cut. So it’s a leg up but not a determinent. The distribution of high poverty – high minority schools on the list should at once offer us some lessons but also call attention to the scale of the challenge. In other words, it’s a list that does showcase some of the best schools out there but doesn’t sugar coat the equity problems that exist today.

3 Replies to “US News Pulls Rank!”

  1. Okay — I am confused. We (those in Nashville) know that the level of education – i.e. quality has been dumbed down at MLK the #32 high school in this ranking. Of course the ranking is using incredibly stale data (2 years old). So how is this measurement really any better than the Newsweek data? How do I as a parent of a high performing student really and truly know how good my child’s school is? We don’t and never will. The test is after high school and after college. The answer is found in how well they do with life —

  2. I attended Thomas Jefferson high school (#1 in rankings) back in the 90’s and have some objections to the data reported in U.S. News in two areas.

    First, the school is most definitely not 4.5% “minority”, as reported. It has a large number of asian and south-asian (Indian, Pakistani) students – around 40% last I heard – along with a small number of black and hispanic students. The actual “minority” percentage should be about 45% not 4.5%. If you click on the minority label in the story, it turns out that only blacks and hispanics count as minority individuals according to U.S. News.

    Second, I was discussing this with a fellow TJ alum this weekend, and we can’t understand how Jefferson is not included as a “magnet” school. As noted in the Dec. 5 Sam Freedman NYT article, the school draws from five counties, including Fairfax (one of the largest school systems in the country). Additionally, it was specifically founded as a magnet school for Science and Technology. If anyone can enlighten us on the magazine’s decision to label TJ as “not a magnet”, please do!

  3. I’m not persuaded that this U.S. News approach to comparing schools makes much sense, particularly when they are missing a significant number of states, and are downplaying results of statewide assessments.

    For example, how does Hidalgo H.S. rate so highly in this ranking when it is strictly middling among Texas high schools on the basic Texas accountability indicator (percent of students meeting standards for all tests) — only about half are meeting that criterion. See this map on School Performance Maps — Hidalgo is the orange-yellow marker near the middle. It sounds like a school that’s doing a great job with its students, but how can 95% be “college ready” if half are failing at least some of the state assessments? And Hidalgo has been slipping relative to other Texas high schools in the last two years (6th decile in 2005, 5th in 2006, 4th in 2007).

    It seems like more valid comparisons can be made on a within-state basis, where there is more consistent data to work with. But I guess that’s just not splashy enough for a U.S. News cover.

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