Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A Bone to Pick with Newsweek

Yesterday I encountered an article in Newsweek that really got my hackles up. Newsweek creates a list every year of America's Best High Schools. This, in and of itself, is not what bothers me. No, what bothers me is how they determine the rankings. Newsweek uses tests to come up with their rankings. Not just any tests, but AP and IB tests. In their FAQs the creators of the list explain it thus:

"We take the total number of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or Cambridge (AICE) tests given at a school each year and divide by the number of seniors graduating in May or June. All public schools NEWSWEEK researcher Amy Novak and I could find that achieved a ratio of at least 1.000, meaning they had as many tests in 2009 as they had graduates, were put on the list on the NEWSWEEK Web site. Each list is based on the previous year's data, so the 2010 list has each school's numbers for 2009."

Waiting to find out what they use? Nothing. That's it. They don't even look at passing rates of these exams since schools can skew those results by only allowing the best of the best to take the exams. Um....call me crazy, but don't you think passing rates reflect on how well the teachers did their jobs? Sure, every senior at a school may take an AP exam, but if only five of them pass I would not say that this is a great high school. But wait, it gets better! (Or worse, depending on how you look at it.)

Also from their FAQ section:
"5. How can you call these the best schools or the top schools if you are using just one narrow measure? High school is more than just AP or IB tests.
Indeed it is, and if I could quantify all those other things in a meaningful way, I would give it a try. But teacher quality, extracurricular activities, and other important factors are too subjective for a ranked list. Participation in challenging courses and tests, on the other hand, can be counted, and the results expose a significant failing in most high schools--less than 6 percent of the public high schools in the United States qualify for the NEWSWEEK list. "

Wow. Just wow. Really? You can't think of any way to evaluate other areas in a non-subjective way? What about using any of the following:

Age of the facility.
Student to teacher ratio.
Graduation rates: which can be done two ways 1) by comparing enrollment at the start of the year with how many graduate, or 2) going back four years to freshman class size compared to how many graduating seniors they have.
Number of scholarships awarded to graduating seniors
Number and variety of electives offered
Number of foreign languages offered
Number and variety of extracurricular activities offered
Number of computers per student
Crime rates for the area surrounding the school
Number of registered sex offenders living nearby
Number of lockdowns the school had to have in one year
Amount of money spent per student
Are they ranked in their state or nationally in any of the following programs: art, band, chorus, debate, drama, sports?

The last time I checked colleges look for well-rounded students, not just academic excellence.

The creators of the list further explain why they chose such a limited criteria:
"I think that this is the most useful quantitative measure of a high school. One of its strengths is the narrowness of the criteria. Everyone can understand the simple arithmetic that produces a school's Challenge Index rating and discuss it intelligently, as opposed to ranked lists like U.S. News & World Report's "America's Best Colleges," which has too many factors for me to judge for myself the quality of their analysis."

Really? So having a chart that show the scores for the different categories would be confusing? Ideally the top schools would score highly in those areas I mentioned. This is how Consumer Reports does rankings and people understand those. Now, I'll admit, that finding this information will be a lot trickier than simply getting the statistics of two areas that schools are happy to divulge, but almost everything I mentioned is something you can find out by looking at either the school's website, or through the websites for the county schools. As for crime rates and such, the local police can provide that, as can a number of websites that allow you to type in an address and get information.

But wait, there's more!
While they have restricted their list to public schools, and they didn't include any charter or magnet school "that draws such a high concentration of top students that its average SAT or ACT score significantly exceeds the highest average for any normal-enrollment school in the country," they did include charter and magnet schools. As in, schools that don't have to take everybody who lives in a given area. No surprise that all of the top ten are either magnet or charter schools, and that only two in the top twenty are regular high schools. That's hardly comparing apple to apples now is it? Take for instance, their number one school The School for the Talented & Gifted in Dallas Texas. It has been number one on their list for last four years. According to the Dallas Magnet School website "To be eligible, students must show good conduct and meet academic and assessment entrance requirements." Lovely. I'm sure my school would score a lot higher if we didn't have to take all the kids who were kicked out of private schools for bad behavior, or who didn't care about school. (And by the way, my high school came in 179th.) In my opinion, there should be two lists done: one for regular public schools and one for charter and magnet schools.

Also, they don't take into consideration programs like the one in place here in North Carolina where students take a course through the community college that counts towards both high school and college. Frankly, I'm not a big fan of that program since I feel it short changes the students, but for people looking at the list who are wondering why there are so few North Carolina schools on the list, compared to say, Northern Virginia, that's your answer.

I'm really not trying to dump all over the creators of this list. I think their goal is admirable. I agree with their statement that "AP, IB, and Cambridge are important because they give average students a chance to experience the trauma of heavy college reading lists and long, analytical college examinations. " My AP English class was as hard or harder than anything I took in college until my junior year, and I didn't attend a school that was considered academically lightweight. And I think it is a shame that more schools don't offer these courses, but you also have to have teachers who are willing and capable to teach these classes, and they don't get paid more for the extra work.
I find their stance regarding the criticism about not using passing rates or scores as a factor, to be admirable. They say:
"(T)hese are all schools with lots of low-income students and great teachers who have found ways to get them involved in college-level courses. We have as yet no proven way for educators in low-income schools to improve significantly their average tests scores or graduation rates. Until we do, I don't see any point in making them play a game that, no matter how energetic or smart they are, they can't win."
But ultimately, it makes their list misleading. These aren't the best high schools in a America. These are the best high schools in terms of academically rigorous curriculum being available and utilized in a very defined way (ie AP and IB) with no regard to performance.* To view the list click here.

*Although, I am sure, that many of the schools that score highly on this assessment will also score highly in the areas I listed.

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