‘Tis the season to be rated, as several publications are releasing their rankings of the best education providers in the United States. The latest entrant is Newsweek, which publishes the list of best 1000 American high schools on an annual basis. With so many lists telling parents, teachers and college admissions officers where to find the best high schools, it seems like the days of guessing and ambiguity should be well behind us, and the question of what makes a school average, good or even great is clearly answered.
Not so fast, says Michael Winerip in his column for The New York Times. By taking a closer look at Newsweek’s rating formula, he concludes that not all is as straightforward as publishers of best-of lists would like their readers to believe.
First, it is important to have a rating system that sounds scientific. Newsweek uses six variables: On-time graduation rate (weighted 25 percent); percent of graduates accepted to college (25 percent); A.P. and International Baccalaureate tests per student (25 percent); average SAT/ACT score (10 percent); Average A.P./International Baccalaureate score (10 percent); and A.P./International Baccalaureate courses per student (5 percent).
This results in a highly refined index score that can distinguish between the 435th best school in America, Westwood High in Massachusetts (.51), and the 436th best, New Berlin West in Wisconsin (.50).
Furthermore, the only conclusion that can be definitively drawn from Newsweek’s list is that the biggest predictor of success of a school is the quality of its student body. After all, it’s hardly a coincidence that out of the 50 top schools, 37 are either magnet schools, or those also practicing selective admissions. Bronx High School of Science, based in New York, is a typical example that frequently finds itself on lists like these. Students enroll in the school if their scores on the specialized admissions tests are high enough. It’s no wonder that the school’s on-time graduation rate is good and the number of its students who score well on the SATs and then go on to college is high. The best 8th graders do typically make the best 12th graders, after all.
There are also 8 charter schools among the top-50, which would surely gladden the heart of education reform advocates. But two of these schools, part of the Basis network in Arizona, target students interested in rigorous college-prep curriculum, where the focus is on advanced placement tests and other college-level courses.
What does the student body look like at a Basis high school? At Basis Scottsdale — the third best high school in America, according to Newsweek — 95 percent of the 701 students are Asian or white.
Asians make up 2.8 percent of the state population, but 41 percent of the Basis Scottsdale students.
There are 15 Hispanics (2 percent) in a state that is about one-third Hispanic.