September 12, 2014

High School Rankings, Context Please!

By Bellwether

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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.

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