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Don't Rely on Magazine's List of Top Schools

Saturday, June 03, 2006

By William L. Bainbridge

Newsweek's list of what it calls "America's Best High Schools" has become a one-stop shop for fact and fiction in school ratings. Americans love ratings, so the May issue and its Web site drew wide interest. But the magazine's lack of credible research and poor methodology are a disservice to readers. Newsweek misleads the public and often ignores schools that better than some of those on the list. In fourth annual listing on its Web site, it ranked the "top" 1,200 public high schools in America by assigning each a precise number. The ratings are based on a ratio devised by education writer Jay Mathews via a simplistic formula: the number of Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) tests taken by all students and divided by the number of graduating seniors. But it ignores performance on the exams, relying only on the number of test-takers rather than the number who successfully complete the exam to earn college credit for high-school work. This rewards quantity without measuring quality, and Mathews admitted in a recent column that the ratings are based on "a much-maligned ranking system I invented a decade ago."

Some schools on Newsweek's list are indeed among the country's best. But many do not meet acceptable definitions of even average schools. Some schools on the list have high dropout rates, low graduation rates and low rankings in student achievement.

The magazine's ratings also are often inconsistent with results on college-entrance examinations, norm-referenced tests, criterion-referenced tests and analysis of dropout and graduation rates, all of which are generally accepted as measures of school effectiveness. Apparently, the Newsweek theory is to demonstrate how committed a school is to motivating students to take college-level courses, regardless of what all students achieve or fail to achieve.

Evidence of Newsweek's flawed system can be found right here in central Ohio, where these schools made the Web list, which is subject to change as new data is submitted:

  • Columbus Alternative High School, No. 300.
  • Olentangy Liberty High School, No. 347.
  • Olentangy High School, Lewis Center, No. 420.
  • Bexley High School, No. 838.
  • Upper Arlington High School, No. 899.

Each of those schools also received the Ohio Department of Education's Excellent (call it an A) rating.

But examples of top schools not on the list include Dublin Coffman High School, New Albany-Plain High School and Thomas Worthington High School in Franklin County, Granville High School in Licking County, Bloom-Carroll High School in Fairfield County and Marysville High School in Union County, all of which also received the state's top rating. Newsweek overlooked them simply because lower numbers of students took the AP and IB tests and in spite of the fact that the schools' overall test scores were among the highest in the nation. Interestingly, the magazine ranked Columbus Centennial High School at No. 1,192, even though the school received an Effective (call it a B) rating from the state.

Because the Newsweek formula rewards participation rather than results, school-system leaders who have ensured that more students take rigorous courses by expanding AP and IB programs have been recognized for their efforts in expanding programs, and while that is a good thing, the formula also:

  • Ignores many schools with high levels of student achievement.
  • Does not include graduation rates.
  • Favors schools where parents or the school board are willing to pay fees for the AP test.
  • Excludes specialized high schools that require an entrance exam.

Regrettably, Newsweek has designed, published and promoted misleading information. Home buyers and parents seeking an answer to the question of identifying high-performing high schools would be wise not to depend upon its list.

is Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Dayton and is President & Chief Executive Officer of SchoolMatch®, a Columbus based educational auditing, research, data firm.

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