Why bad school rankings hurt our children (or, are you listening, US News Best High Schools Rankings?)

by J. Stephen O’Brien

The annual US News rankings of US high schools is out today. Here are the assessments of two high schools in two states.

High School #1

  • Reading proficiency score: 3.4
  • Math proficiency score: 3.1
  • Students proficient in reading: 92%
  • Students proficient in math: 92%

High School #2

  • Reading proficiency score: 2.9
  • Math proficiency score: 2.7
  • Students proficient in reading: 80%
  • Students proficient in math: 64%

Which high school would you want to send your children to? High school #1, right? Now, here’s some more information.

High School #1

Average SAT score: 39th percentile

High School #2

Average ACT score: 84th percentile

Now what do you think? But wait, it gets better. High school #1 sends fewer than the national average percentage of kids on to college, while high school #2 sends well above the national average to college. At high school #1, only the college-bound take the SAT. At high school #2, by state law, all students take the ACT, but only the college bound take the SAT. So, let’s look at that comparison, again using something closer to apples and apples.

High School #1

Average SAT score for college bound: 39th percentile

High School #2

Average SAT score for college bound: 90th percentile

Now where would you want your children to matriculate?  And what if I told you that high school #1 is in an area that has lost 20% of its non-agricultural, private-sector jobs in the past 10 years, primarily because employers cannot find labor well enough educated to train for today’s jobs? And what if I told you that high school #2 is in an area with very low unemployment, plenty of entrepreneurial start ups that locate here because of its skilled labor force, and typically has from 15-20 National Merit Scholars in a given year?

So what, you say? What does it matter if US News gets it so wrong? I’m glad you asked. You see, the county where high school #1 is located has the lowest mill levy (property tax rate) in its state, and though the schools beg residents to raise more money for education to replace, say, the antiquated wooden lab hoods (total of two) in the chemistry classes that make it impossible to safely conduct labs on certain chemical reactions, the answer is always, “We’re doing great! US News gave us an award!”

So, US News, keep hurting our children with your insipid high school rankings. It’s profitable, right? So why should you care?

Categories: Education, Journalism

2 replies »

  1. I’ve been covering public school issues in Chicago for a while and it’s more or less a truism that testing and ranking is not meant to find out who needs help, but which schools can be closed down first. Even if the ranking accurately reflected achievement, the very goal of public education–that everyone get the same decent education–is undermined by a policy that widens the education divide.

  2. Interesting and provocative. Really underscores two of the big problems with ranking metrics and benchmarking–the difficulty of finding apples to apples comparisons, and the enthusiastic efforts of middle managers to distort the measures.

    Years ago I did some work for GM. Over the years I watched as Cadillac paid the folks who tracked market share to continually change the definition so they would lose their number one position. From luxury vehicles to luxury cars to American made luxury cars, etc.