• from the Florida Times-Union - Newsweek's Flawed School Ratings

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Newsweek's Flawed School Ratings

June 3, 2006

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.

Florida had three schools in the top ten and the most in the top 100, (20) nationally. Florida joins California, New York and Texas leading the nation in the total number of schools on the list.

Duval County's Stanton College Preparatory School (5th) and Paxon School for Advanced Studies (28th) are among the top 100 public high schools. Also making the list were Douglas Anderson School of the Arts (422nd) and Mandarin High School (784th). St. Johns County's Nease High School was 139th. The good news is that each of these northeast Florida schools also received an A in their state Department of Education's rating system.

Such consistency was not the case in many areas of the country. For example, Duval County's Fletcher High School and St. Johns County's Bartram Trail High School received A's from the State of Florida, but did not make the Newsweek list even though their overall test scores were quite high, simply due to numbers of students taking the AP and IB. On the other hand, the magazine ranks Gainesville's Eastside High School as the nation's sixth best high school, but the school received only a "C" in 2005 from it's own Florida Department of Education.

Strangely enough and confirming the illegitimacy of the ranking, many high schools with historically the highest national college entrance examinations and norm-referenced test scores did not meet the Newsweek criteria.

Since 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. That is a good thing!

Readers may notice numbers different from those above on the Newsweek web site since the magazine also says. "If you have 2005 data showing that your school should be on this list... we'll expand the list to include new schools that qualify, and that will cause the ranks of many schools to drop."

Our SchoolMatch® Audit team, engaged by the TIMES-UNION in 1996, recommended in an audit of Duval County schools that "The Advanced Placement program must become more effective, resulting in more scores of 3, 4 or 5 on the AP exams. This requires teacher training, adherence to the Advanced Placement curriculum, reduction of grade inflation and establishing districtwide rubrics to guide grading practices. "At that time we did not consider any ranking system that would simply reward student participation and ignore test scores altogether.

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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