More Challenging!

Per the rankings debate down below, now USN ‘s Robert Morse reacts to Jay Mathews’ changes to The Challenge Index.    Morse’s bottom line is around test taking v. test passing, and that’s a legitimate issue.  But my concerns about The Challenge Index are rooted in broader concerns about equity and school quality.

2 Replies to “More Challenging!”

  1. I applaud both the Newsweek and U.S. News high school rankings for kindling debate about what constitutes a “good” school, but both rankings miss the crucial factor in this equation: students do not just appear in high school as blank slates.

    To identify a good school, the question one should ask is not how many students graduate, how many AP tests are passed, or even how many students attend college. At a very fundamental level, the question to ask is whether the students enrolled in any given school would have learned more or achieved more if they were enrolled in a different school. If the answer is no, you’ve found a good school. If the answer is yes, you must have identified a better school.

    To answer this question, one needs to know something about the types of students entering each high school. What do these students bring into the high school in terms of academic preparation, personal motivation, and family/peer support? Without this information, the Newsweek and U.S. News rankings simply tell us where the top students attend high school, not which are the best high schools.

    The U.S. News methodology is a step in the right direction relative to the Newsweek rankings, but simply taking into account the relationship between school-level poverty rates and school-level achievement does little to account for the selective nature of high school enrollment. This selection occurs through an application process (i.e., closed-enrollment) and/or residential sorting process (i.e., open-enrollment schools in high income attendance areas). Poverty rates may play a role in that selection process, but so too does prior academic achievement and social factors that emphasis the importance of education.

    It is no surprise, then, that the majority of schools that populate the U.S. News rankings enroll a selective population of students. Even many of the purported 381 schools with open enrollment serve high income neighborhoods or require selective effort on the part of parents or students to enroll (e.g., charter schools). By not creating a ranking system that accounts for the complex high school selection processes, the current rankings fail to separate the ranking of schools based on performance from the ranking of schools based on enrollment.

    Granted, the data do not exist to carry out the needed analysis to adequately rank high schools. But failure by Newsweek and U.S. News to explicitly state the fundamental limitation of their rankings to their readers creates more harm than good.

  2. JHR makes a good point: School rankings such as U.S. News and World Report often reflect the qualities of the students before they even enter the high school, rather than the quality of the school, per se. I attended a selective high school, and was always surprised when my school (rather than its students) garnered acclaim for academic accomplishments. Only academically accomplished kids were allowed to attend my high school – of course they’re going to do well on subsequent standardized tests!

    Of course, selective schools often DO have good instruction, for a variety of reasons. These schools often attract more applicants for teaching positions, and can therefore hand-pick their teachers from a larger pool of applicants. Selective schools can also deliver a higher level curriculum because the students are prepared to handle it. Schools with selective admissions also have a leg up on avoiding student misbehavior and classroom disruptions, which can really wreak havoc in a typical classroom.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.