June 11, 2003 2 min read

Rank Index?

Some educators are criticizing the methodology of Newsweek‘s index of the nation’s top high schools as simplistic and misleading.

The newsmagazine’s June 2 cover story, “The 100 Best High Schools in America,” ranked 739 high schools according to a single criterion: the number of Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate tests taken by students in a school, divided by the number of graduating seniors in that school.

But some school administrators, even those whose schools made the highly publicized list, aren’t big fans of the “Challenge Index,” as the Newsweek high school ranking list is called.

That’s because no one indicator can sum up the quality of a school, said Henry S. Bangser, the superintendent of Illinois’ 3,800-student New Trier Township High School District 203. New Trier High School ranked second in the Chicago area and 158th nationwide on the Newsweek survey.

“It is insulting to the [education] profession that anyone could characterize the quality of something as complex as a high school ... with a formulaic index,” he said. “If there’s one word to characterize this effort, it’s ‘absurd.’”

The Challenge Index also judges high schools on a “false” assumption, asserted Robert A. Schaeffer, the public education director for the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest, a watchdog group based in Cambridge, Mass.

“There’s the implicit assumption that the best education for all kids is advanced-college-prep track, which is just not true,” he said.

The single criterion of the ranking formula is actually one of the index’s strengths, argued Washington Post education reporter and Web columnist Jay Mathews, who wrote the Newsweek article and devised the formula. Mr. Mathews also serves on the board of Editorial Projects in Education, the publisher of Education Week.

“Teacher quality, extracurricular activities, and several other important factors are too subjective for a ranked list,” Mr. Mathews said via e- mail. “Participation in challenging courses, on the other hand, can be counted. ... That is the most important quantitative measure one can make of a high school.

“As for the words, ‘top’ and ‘best,’ they’re always based on criteria chosen by the list-maker,” Mr. Mathew’s said. “I have been very clear what I am measuring in these schools, and since it is my game, I get to say how we keep score. Then we can have some very interesting and productive arguments.”

—Rhea R. Borja