Best High School?

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Understanding the U.S. News & World Report List

Schools are the communities that grow our children into young adults preparing for college.

“My children love their school. They love their teachers, they feel challenged but not overly stressed, and they’ve formed great friendships though rewarding extracurricular activities. We’ve had an extremely positive experience—at least we thought we did. And, then the rankings came out.” That sentiment could be written by a parent at almost any school across the country.

Here in the DC metro area, the biggest shudder ran through Bethesda.

For three years, Whitman High School was ranked the “best high school,” (which was great for students preparing for college) but this year, it is UNRANKED! Really? Many parents grabbed the U.S. News & World Report, found a quiet place to scrutinize the list, and considered moving to Arizona (four of the top five high schools are there!). They wondered, “is it all worth it?” The stress, the pressure, the grind of the DC metro area. And, for what? We used to be #1. As parents, how can we be paying to live in these expensive homes in expensive neighborhoods just to send our children to an UNRANKED high school?

Stop. Breathe. Read. Every story needs context.

The rankings are just numbers. But, do you know how the numbers came to be? Here is the methodology, as described by the U.S. News & World Report:

Step 1: The school attains performance levels that exceed statistical expectations given the school’s relative level of student poverty, as measured by state accountability test scores for all the school’s students in the core subjects of reading and math. A school can also succeed at this step by performing in the top 10 percent of schools in its state on those tests in absolute terms. However, no school can succeed at this step if it places in the bottom 10 percent of schools in its state.

Step 2: The school achieves proficiency rates on state tests for its least-advantaged student groups (E.g. black, Hispanic economically disadvantaged students) that are equal to or exceed state averages.

Step 3: The school graduates its students at a rate that surpasses a basic national standard.

Step 4: The school prepares its students for college, as measured by student participation in and performance on Advanced Placement (AP) exams.

What it means: Did students do better than expected? Well, the bar for Whitman students is high. It’s an affluent community with advantaged kids (relative to other schools) that are preparing for college. Expectations are high. And, you know what, those students generally do great—in school, in college, in life. But that’s not the way rankings work.

To top the rankings, a school must top expectations.

Sort of like corporations topping earnings expectations to drive stock prices higher. Umm, good luck with that spiral. By other measures, Whitman is a top school, but It didn’t top the expectations relative to how others exceeded expectations. Oh, and after failing to dominate Step 1, Steps 2, 3, and 4 don’t matter. The U.S. News rankings measure AP scores and graduation rates, but only after passing Step 1.

These types of lists don’t measure many of the things parents might assume: GPA, college admissions and completions, Intel Science winners, etc. So, while a school and its students may be thriving academically, these lists fail to measure happiness, athletics, arts, or teacher-student ratios. As you know, there are many ways to measure “best.”

For example, a few years back, the U.S. News Best College Guide had a tie at #57 of Best Universities: Penn State and Yeshiva. Penn State, with more than 40,000 undergrads, top research facilities, and sports team, nestled in Happy Valley in central Pennsylvania, could scarcely be less like Yeshiva, a top research university with an overwhelmingly Jewish student body of 2,700 in upper Manhattan. It is hard to imagine the student who might be stuck in indecision: “Man, I love both. It’s so hard to decide!”

Here’s my take:

Rankings are quantitative. Life is qualitative. At least in some of the most meaningful of ways. Rankings are born of data. But we are we much more than numbers—we all blanch at reducing a student to an SAT score and a GPA. And if we refuse to reduce something as complex as a student to a number, how can we possibly reduce an entire school, which is a complex ecosystem, to a number?

Am I opposed to rankings? Largely, yes.

Students are wonderful blends of strengths and weaknesses, achievements and aspirations, constantly in a state of becoming. Children are on the move. Measuring them at a point in time to rank them doesn’t capture their trajectories. And, of more concern, there is a great chance it also alters their trajectories—likely not for the better.

For those students, teachers, and families attending a school recently recognized as a “best school,” congratulations. I expect you are doing well and doing something right! For those at an overlooked school, ignore the rankings. Ignore them. Keep working hard. At. Things. That. Matter. To. You.

Ned Johnson

President & Tutor-Geek

Ned Johnson is the president and founder of PrepMatters. A professional tutor-geek since 1993, Mr. Johnson has devoted in excess of 35,000 hours in one-on-one test prep for nearly the entire alphabet of tests. His experience includes work with all ages and abilities in preparation for SSAT and ISEE to ACT and SAT to GMAT, GRE and LSAT.

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