Published Online: June 13, 2006
Published in Print: June 14, 2006, as Ranking America’s High Schools

Commentary

Ranking America’s High Schools

A Few Quibbles on What Constitutes 'Best'

A list of America’s top 100 high schools, as ranked by Newsweek, came out in May, and my school wasn’t on it. I teach English at a school in Fairfax County, Va., that gives (and whose students pass) more Advanced Placement tests than any other school in the world (over 3,000 this year). Five of the American students who logged perfect scores on the new SAT in its first year were ours, and we boast more Ph.D.s on our staff than most community colleges. So why aren’t we list-worthy?

Bill Clinton would be proud of the verbal dexterity by which the magazine separates the meaning of “best” from “brightest” and attaches it instead to “average.”

Because we’re a “public elite.” Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, along with 20 other schools relegated to a sidebar on the last page of the Newsweek list, are excluded from being ranked because “so many of [our] students score well above average on the SAT and ACT.” Isn’t that a little like making an NBA all-star team, but leaving off the players who scored too many points or grabbed too many rebounds?

The Best High Schools list has a dirty little secret: It doesn’t list America’s best high schools. At least, not all of them. And the ones it does include may be ranked incorrectly. Here are five reasons:

The meaning of “is.” Bill Clinton would be proud of the verbal dexterity by which the magazine separates the meaning of “best” from “brightest” and attaches it instead to “average.” Check the fine print: “With our Best High Schools list,” the notoriously reader-friendly magazine proclaims in a buried paragraph, “Newsweek recognizes schools that do the best job of preparing average students for college.” In other words, the list has a not-so-implicit bias toward the “regular” kid. The very rich and the very smart need not apply. While admirably democratic, this may also constitute false advertising.

What scores? There’s an elephant in the room, and we don’t know if it’s dumb or smart. Based on the “Challenge Index,” a brainchild of the Washington Post education writer Jay Mathews, Newsweek’s list rates schools by the number of hard tests they give. But what about the scores? By the logic of the Challenge Index, a school that has a hundred kids take an AP test, with an average score of 1 (a failing grade), is better than a school that has 25 kids take the same test and pass with an average grade of 4 (which gets college credit). Mathews has devised a system that favors quantity without taking quality into account.

AP vs. IB. Taking an Advanced Placement test or sitting for an International Baccalaureate exam are the same in the eyes of the Challenge Index. But the two programs are not the same. The AP program, more widely recognized in the United States, claims to offer high school kids the equivalent of a college class, and generally requires the coverage of a prescribed body of knowledge within a discipline. The IB program, originally established in Switzerland for the children of diplomats, is an entire curriculum, including a service component to which a school must subscribe; kids can test in every subject or just one. Both are rigorous, it’s true, but parents trying to decide where to send their children would be wise to consider the programs’ qualitative differences in philosophy and content.

Sit and deliver. Jaime Escalante was the legendary math teacher who turned poor kids from the mean streets of Los Angeles into math superstars with a no-excuses philosophy made famous in the 1988 movie “Stand and Deliver.” Ironically, his success has given fuel to the widespread notion that urban educators who can’t make kids succeed simply lack the force of will to help their students defy society’s low expectations. This kind of thinking puts the onus for success-against-the-odds on educators and schools, but conveniently lets society itself off the hook. Disadvantaged kids are done a similar disservice by the growing myth of America’s Best High Schools: The list has created the perception that just putting kids into hard courses makes them smarter. One recent Washington Post article described a hapless Prince George’s County, Md., school that had given a hundred Advanced Placement tests a year for three years without a single passing score.

The Bartleby effect. Some schools “prefer not to,” in the immortal words of Melville’s stubbornly nonparticipatory law clerk. Strike from the list those that resist the pressure to shove warm bodies into their toughest courses just to say they did it, or (gasp) that don’t even offer AP or IB classes. Beyond deserving “regular” schools, like Fairfax County’s Marshall High School, which posts top IB scores despite jaw-dropping diversity, a wide net of charter, experimental, and alternative high schools meet the needs of students not served in traditional or existing schools, but don’t register on the 100-best radar. Washington’s Duke Ellington School of the Arts has nurtured great performers, and Outward Bound, the outdoor-adventure school, has a classroom version that practices “expeditionary learning.” For kids who find their niche, schools like these are the best, whether they make Newsweek’s list or not.

And as for Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology? The students there are too busy being Intel-competition finalists, chess champions, and research-grant winners—not to mention taking an average of seven AP tests each—to notice that they aren’t on the list, or to care all that much if they are.

Yet what I find most remarkable about these students I work with every day is something that I wish Newsweek would realize, too. Inside every nerdy superachiever at Thomas Jefferson is something you can find in any high school classroom in America: a regular kid.

Vol. 25, Issue 40, Page 27

Web Resources
  • In his blog "Certifiable?," hosted by Teacher Magazine, Emmet Rosenfeld is chronicling his experiences as he works towards national-board certification.
  • See the list of Newsweek's top 1,000 high schools.
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