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Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Newsweek School Ratings: Fact or Fiction?

by William L. Bainbridge

Newsweek's national list of "America's Best High Schools" unfortunately has become a one-stop shop for both fact and fiction in school ratings. Since Americans love ratings, the May 16th issue of the newsmagazine created wide interest. It was their 4th tabloid-like attempt to identify the top high schools across the states.

By publishing this list, Newsweek misleads the public and often ignores deserving high schools that are better than some of those on the list. . Newsweek ranked the "top" 1,200 public high schools in America by assigning a precise number. Their single-criterion ratings are based on a ratio devised by education writer Jay Mathews. Mathews' rating is based solely upon a simplistic formula: the number of Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) tests taken by all students divided by the number of graduating seniors.

This is a rating system that rewards quantity without measuring quality. Mathews admits in a recent column that the ratings are based on " ...a much-maligned ranking system I invented a decade ago." The lack of credible research and poor methodology is a disservice to readers and those who read second-hand accounts of such questionable ratings.

Some of the high schools on Newsweek's list ARE among the country's best. On the other hand, many do not meet acceptable definitions of even average high schools. Based upon generally accepted testing standards, many of the high schools on Newsweek's list have high dropout rates, low graduation rates and low ranking in student achievement.

Importantly, the ratings are often inconsistent with the results on SAT and ACT college entrance examinations, norm- referenced tests, criterion-referenced tests and analysis of dropout and graduation rates - - indicators generally accepted as elements of school effectiveness. Apparently the Newsweek theory is to demonstrate how committed a school is to motivating students to take higher level college level courses, regardless of what students achieve or fail to achieve.

The Newsweek formula:
  • Completely ignores performance on the AP and IB 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. Certainly the actual results of those tests should be considered instead of just reporting the students who took the test.

  • Ignores many schools with high levels of student achievement.

  • Does not include important high school graduation rates.

  • Unfairly favors schools where parents or the school board are willing to pay fees for the AP test. Many schools have lower participation since students are required to pay their own testing fees.

  • Excludes all specialized high schools that require an entrance exam.

Regrettably, Newsweek has designed, published and promoted misleading information by offering a simple answer to the wrong question. Homebuyers and parents seeking an answer to the question of identifying high performing high schools would be wise not to depend upon Newsweek.

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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