A Rank Debate

It’s not the back and forth of different reform schemes that really gets me going, it’s the back and forth about high school rankings!

Last week U.S. News released its new rankings of American high schools, which include a methodology change:  International Baccalaureate or “IB” is included now thanks to some data changes.  The rankings are an outgrowth of a fun and lively debate that Jay Mathews and I have had for some time about high school rankings.

In particular, as Sara Mead and I wrote in this ES paper (pdf), this WaPo commentary, and as I wrote last year in U.S. News these rankings improve on Jay Mathews’ Newsweek rankings.  While schools that overall are not doing a good job but nonetheless have a small core of kids taking Advanced Placement (AP) and IB courses can make the Newsweek list of “America’s Best High Schools,” the U.S. News list, which – full disc. – I helped develop, includes screens for overall performance and equity in addition to AP and IB pass rates.   

This year Jay is making a change to his ranking method, a “Catching-Up” list for schools with AP or IB test passing rates less than 10 percent.   It’s a start, but Jay and I still have a more basic disagreement about whether schools that are profoundly inequitable should be on a list of the nation’s “best” because they succeed with a small group of students.   And while Jay argues back that the U.S. News list favors selective admission and affluent schools, in fact all kinds of schools can and do make the U.S. News list and the performance benchmarks are more meaningful.

One way to think about this is that Jay’s method focuses on successful classrooms while U.S. News focuses on successful schools.   Perhaps if Jay and Newsweek made a few modifications and re-framed their rankings as America’s “best classrooms” rather than best schools we’d have no debate and could recognize some teachers accomplishing great things with students.

2 Replies to “A Rank Debate”

  1. My reading of the U.S. News rankings is that they also give a lot of credit for AP/IB participation without regard to quality. Compare #19 IDEA College Prep with #100 (last) Belmont High:

    U.S. News college readiness index: BH = 61.2, ICP = 88.9
    U.S. News quality adjusted exams/taker: BH = 3.8, ICP = 1.0
    U.S. News exam passing rate: BH = 88.2%, ICP = 17.1%
    Enrollment: BH = 1,150, ICP = 231

    From reading the IDEA website its clear that the IDEA Prep model is one of students taking IB/AP tests. So it seems IDEA Prep’s ranking is based on its model and not on its results.

    I’m guessing that parents who are choosing IDEA Prep are not at all like the parents who are choosing Belmont High. But hey, the ranking is a fun academic exercise!

  2. Because of PM’s point- attempting an AP plays a significant role in the ranking, something interesting happens…….. schools with high Latino student populations get an advantage that I think the designers may have overlooked!

    Consider this: If 95-100% of your students speak Spanish in their household, and the school utilizes their students’ bilingual background in encouraging and preparing ALL of those students to take AP Spanish Language, the result is 95-100% of your seniors will have attempted at least 1 AP exam (and will pass it). This near 100% AP participation gives certain schools an inflated “College Readiness” score with the US News’s ranking system, and doesn’t give a realistic a picture of how well the school is doing overall to prepare students for college.

    This is why you’ll see several small CA schools in close proximity to each other making this list! I personally have worked with 3 of the “Top 100” as either a teacher or a consultant, and while they are all good schools and I’m happy they’ll get excellent publicity from making the list, I don’t think it is fair to necessarily say that they should all be considered the best in the country!

    The “Quality Adjusted” score is only used to rank in the case of a tie, and you’ll see some schools in the list where seniors on average have passed only 1 AP yet they are on the list of 100 best schools in the US! If we’re using AP as the measuring stick, success on the AP should play a much more important factor in the rankings vs. participation.

    My suggestion- why not use % seniors accepted to 4 year colleges? Isn’t that the bottom line of what most educators want- seeing as many 12th graders have the opportunity to go to a university as possible? You could even factor in the rigor of the colleges that students get accepted to as a measure of how well the HS prepared them.

    As a former math teacher I love to see people jump up and down about this list while so few people take the time to look at the methodology of the rankings!

    For the informed Eduwonkers though….

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