High School Rankings, Context Please!

Libby Nelson turns in an interesting piece critical of high school rankings in Vox. It caught my eye because she focuses on the Newsweek approach to high school rankings, an approach I’ve criticized as well (pdf).  In my view it rewards the wrong things.

But two aspects of Nelson’s argument are worth a closer look. First, she inexplicably ignores the U.S. News high school rankings – which were designed to address the very shortcomings she raises. (Full disc, subsequent to our analysis of the Newsweek rankings I became a contributor to U.S. News in 2007 and helped design the rankings methodology). No ranking is without flaws but the U.S. News method takes into account equity issues. In particular the rankings consider achievement gaps, economic disadvantage, and college preparation. The result is that it’s not merely a list of selective admission (or affluent) public schools.* Open-admission schools crack the top-10 and the top 100 is an interesting list every year.

Second, Nelson writes that,

College rankings, at least in theory, are responding to a need in the market. Students applying to prestigious, selective colleges — particularly students who have the academic qualifications and the financial means to go to college anywhere — have quite a few to choose from. Enter rankings, a way to sort through it all.

Public high school doesn’t work this way. The most useful information for you is what the best high school in your city, state, or school district is. If you’re the parent of a smart kid in Scottsdale, Arizona, who cares more about academics than anything else, you might try to get into the BASIS Charter School via lottery.

This is true but incomplete in two ways. First, the U.S. News rankings allow you to break out schools by state or type of school so the geography becomes more bite-sized for parents. And knowing how your school stacks up on these measures relative to other schools near it is useful.

Second, yes, college is about choice. If you want a small northeastern liberal arts college and live in California you can still choose to go to Colby in Maine. And if you live in Maine but want a big land grant experience you can go to a Big 10 school. But there is value in knowledge even without geographic flexibility. Just knowing what the highly ranked high schools are doing and how they’re doing it can help other schools – especially if rankings consider things that matter, like effectiveness serving low-income students. Granted, in education today that sort of curiosity and culture of learning is quite ironically frequently absent. Too often the culture is about tearing down rather than building up. Still, from the start U.S. News has taken steps to foster it via various types of collaboration and dissemination.

*Lost in all the back and forth about public charter schools, which are lottery-based if over-subscribed, is the reality of selective admissions public schools, which almost no one complains about and are common. Score another one for politics.

6 Replies to “High School Rankings, Context Please!”

  1. What “open enrollment” school cracks the top ten? It is my experience, haveing worked in New Orleans, Lousiana and Sacramento, that so called open enrollment charters and others, especially the highly rated ones, go to great lengths to select their students and weed out low performers. Most are not really open enrollment at all.

  2. The challenge here is separate student quality from school quality. The true measure is student improvement, not student performance, and absolutely not “achievement gaps” or “economic disadvantage”. A school that shrinks an achievement gap is likely doing a disservice to the more advanced students.

    If we are to look at schools, we may see that some do well helping students that are below age-level standards, and some do well at helping students that are advanced. It is probably not the case that one school can have the resources to address a wider variety of students.

    This is why many parents look at student quality as proxy for school quality, as finding a school where most students are at the level of your student is more likely to devote resources to students at that level. For example, by having special classes devoted to improving reading performance, or by offering advanced math classes beyond calculus.

  3. People do not complain about selective public schools because these schools declare themselves as “selective” and rarely, if ever, compare themselves to schools that take all comers. So, for example, a person will not hear the highly selective Oxford Academy in Cypress CA declare themselves so much more “successful” than Cypress High School. Everyone knows and accepts the fact that Oxford accepts only high-achieving students who pass their entrance exam. I sent my own sons to similar schools. As another commenter states, a parent must be free to choose the school that best fits his child.

    Many charters however, lie about their “successes.” They insist that they “take everyone” and “keep everyone” when that is clearly not the case. Every charter that has extremely high test scores has found a way to attract and retain a select student body. Often this is done in a roundabout way. But few admit to it. That’s what many of us object to. Lies are destructive and have no place in education.

  4. Yes, ranking can be very useful. Almost all of these high-performing schools have rich or selected populations. Read, for example, the admission requirements for The Preuss School in La Jolla.

    One fact many people overlook is this:

    About one-third of the children in even the poorest schools are high-performing (grade level or above). These schools also have a normal distribution of gifted children. Many of these “miracle” schools that focus on poor students have learned how to attract this (high-performing) population. These children can, and do, as well as children everywhere. Why wouldn’t they? This is no miracle.

    There is nothing wrong with taking motivated children and giving them a break. Catholic schools have been doing it for years. But let’s not say that The Preuss School takes failing kids from failing schools and does something “miraculous” with them. That simply is not true. This school admits motivated students who are recommended by their teachers and offers them a high-quality education. That in itself is a good thing, made possible by the wealthy Preuss family. No need to lie about it.

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