The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Sunday, June 15, 2003  

Now They’re Ranking the High Schools

At someone’s blog, I forget whose now and I apologize for that, I see that it’s not enough that we rank colleges and universities, a franchise on which the insipid U.S. News & World Report has achieved a complete lock, we’re now ranking the nation’s public high schools.

The list of the country’s top public schools, which can be found at MSNBC’s site, was created using a ratio called the “Challenge Index,” based on what is in my opinion seriously flawed or at least poorly explained methodology, devised by one Jay Mathews:

[T]he number of Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate tests taken by all students at a school in 2002 divided by the number of graduating seniors. Schools that chose more than half of their students by grades or test scores were not considered because the index is designed to identify schools that challenge average students and does not work well with schools that have few or no average students. The schools ranked below have the strongest AP or IB programs in the country. Each of them is in the top four percent of all American high schools measured this way.

Great, this is just what we need. Now, similar to the way colleges “game” the U.S. News annual survey to enhance their position on the list, we can presume the top public high schools will begin gaming the “Challenge Index” to boost their ratings. Worse, perhaps, parents will obsess on the list, berating their local school board and faculty (and the teachers’ unions most of all, of course), and bemoaning their property tax bills, if their school’s precious and prized ranking slips a point or two. Oh, and the realtors? They’re going to love this.

How about focusing on the fundamentals of education instead? Nah, this is simpler, more fun, provides handy bragging rights, and, better yet, can be used by parents to beat up on college admissions officers who dare to place little Billy or Susie on the waiting list: “Our school is ranked 16th according to the ‘Challenge Index.’ How many kids were admitted from schools that ranked below 16?! We want to see the numbers. Is this some new form of affirmative action? We’ll sue!”

It will come as no surprise that the vast majority of schools on the list are located in mostly white suburban locales or predominantly white areas within city limits. A quick glance, no scientific survey on my part, I assure you, reveals a preponderance of high schools from Nassau and Westchester Counties, N.Y. (and probably a small number of California counties that my East-Coast ethnocentrism prevents me from identifying), proving, I suppose, if anything, that you get what you pay for.

I was surprised to see that only five Pennsylvania high schools made the list: Lower Moreland, in Huntingdon Valley (No. 135); Conestoga, in Berwyn (No. 270); Unionville, in Kennett Square (No. 580); Mount Lebanon, in Pittsburgh [Ed.: Actually, in Mount Lebanon, Pa.; see second post-publication addendum below.] (No. 628); and Central Bucks East in Doylestown (No. 763). Something for Pennsylvania lawmakers to think about -- or counterintuitively, to ignore -- as they revamp the state's tax system, including local property tax rates.

And no, my high school didn’t make the list. Technically, I didn’t even graduate from a “high school,” I graduated from what in New York State is called a “central school,” which means, among other things, that all grades, from kindergarten through 12th grade, are housed in the same building. Besides, the school was too small -- I graduated in a class of just 43 students -- to be considered for the “Challenge Index,” and the school offered no advanced placement courses when I was there (and I assume it still doesn’t). And yet, even without my school achieving a prized place on this completely unnecessary list, I turned out okay. Not great, just okay.

Relax, everybody, they’re just numbers, and gimmicky numbers at that.

[Post-publication addendum (June 16): Steve Smith of Smythe’s World writes to bring me up to speed on the California schools that made “the list”: “In fact, the California schools listed come disproportionately from Santa Clara, Orange, and San Diego Counties, which is consistent with your analysis. The Los Angeles County schools on the list are either from ultra-affluent neighborhoods (e.g., Beverly Hills, Malibu, Palisades, etc.) or are “magnet schools” established by the Los Angeles Unified School District that emphasize A.P. courses.”]

[Post-publication addendum (June 16): Reader J.R. of Pittsburgh writes to inform me that MSNBC was incorrect in listing Mount Lebanon High School as being located in Pittsburgh. It is actually in Mount Lebanon, Pa., which is several miles south of the city limits.]

[Post-publication addendum (June 18): Uggabugga has a fascinating and creative take on this list.]

[Post-publication addendum (June 19): Max Withers of Bad Things has some excellent commentary on this issue as well.]

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