Blog: The Educated Reporter

High School Rankings Give Skewed View Of Campus Performance

The New York Times’ Michael Winerip has a thoughtful take on how the popular practice of ranking high schools — including Newsweek Magazine’s vaunted list — can result in a skewed view of campus performance.

Various publications, including U.S. News & World Report and the Daily Beast, use formulas that typically rank schools based how many students take Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes, and then score well on the related exams. Some of the formulas give schools credit for graduation rates and college-going rates. U.S. News’ rankings this year were marred by reports of faulty data  for two campuses in the Top 20. The problem stemmed from incorrect figures reported to the U.S. Department of Education’s Common Core of Data, the federal database used by the publication to gather information about schools.

Winerip argues that these numerical compilations can’t truly reflect how well a school is truly serving its students. If such lists were to be believed, Winerip said, parents looking for the top schools for their children might consider avoiding the midwest altogether, as Newsweek has deemed it “an educational wasteland.”

Indeed, given the problems with U.S. News’ rankings, it’s important to remember that the accuracy of such rankings isn’t always a given. At the same time, Winerip’s concern “that the lists are stacked,” is a fair one.

“Schools with the greatest challenges can appear to be the biggest failures,” Winerip wrote. “At a time when public education is so data-driven, that kind of thinking can cost dedicated teachers and principals their jobs.

To be sure, schools serving more affluent communities are more likely to appear high on the list. So are campuses that are able to practice some form of selective enrollment.

When the annual high school rankings come out, I’ve often wondered if it’s even reasonable to include magnet campuses, which are public schools that offer specialized programs in areas such as science, math and technology. The enrollment is typically determined by a competitive application process, and magnet schools draw standout students who are highly motivated to succeed. Given those factors, why even include them in the rankings of traditional campuses that must accept every student who enrolls?

When I broached this topic with Robert Morse, U.S. News’ director of data and research, in an interview last month, he called it a fair question. But from the publication’s perspective, “a public school is a public school,” Morse told me. He pointed out that the elite programs are free to attend, “even if there are some barriers to entry.”


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