U.S. News Selects 96 ‘Outstanding’ Schools

By Mark Walsh — January 13, 1999 4 min read
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The issue of U.S. News & World Report magazine hitting newsstands this week is sure to pique the interest of educators and parents in at least six cities.

After two years of research, the newsmagazine has come up with a list of 96 “Outstanding American High Schools” in the Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, Detroit, and New York City metropolitan areas.

U.S. News, which has carved out a niche in the competitive newsweekly market with its sometimes controversial rankings of colleges and graduate schools, did not attempt to rank U.S. high schools. But it did try to identify schools whose performance can be attributed to the institutions themselves and not just to the socioeconomic characteristics of their students.

Thus, several prominent public schools that often top other lists of excellent secondary schools are missing from the U.S. News roster, including New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill., Stuyvesant High School in New York City, and Scarsdale (N.Y.) High School.

“The purpose is not to rate or rank schools but to celebrate educational excellence,” said Thomas Toch, the magazine’s senior education writer.

The list includes 29 urban public schools, 44 suburban public schools, and 20 Roman Catholic high schools in both cities and suburbs. But except for three in Chicago, there are no representatives of the group known as independent schools--traditionally the nation’s most selective private schools.

That’s because independent schools for the most part boycotted the magazine’s undertaking, fearing it would grow into an annual ranking system along the lines of the U.S. News college guides.

“It is a flawed concept,” said Peter D. Relic, the president the Washington-based National Association of Independent Schools. “Every high school that is not mentioned in that [U.S. News] article is a loser.”

‘Value Added’

U.S. News editors defend the methodology and goals of their 36-page special report, which is included in the issue dated Jan. 18.

“We’re publishing this in an environment that is rankings-sensitive,” Mr. Toch said. “This is a complicated and sophisticated effort, and it will take time for people to understand it.”

As the magazine puts it: “Anyone could come up with a list of America’s ‘best’ high schools by finding schools where kids have high sat scores. Such lists would be filled with the names of elite urban schools and rich suburban schools, but they would not reveal much about the quality of the schools themselves.”

U.S. News attempted what it calls a “value added” approach in which it identified the proportion of outcomes attributable to what the school does, rather than who it enrolls. Working with the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, the magazine developed a statistical model designed to identify schools that do a better job of educating their students than would be expected given their students’ backgrounds.

The model looked at the percentage of students who take college-entrance tests (the SAT and ACT) as a proxy for college-going rates; Advanced Placement exam-taking rates; persistence (or completion) rates; and state test scores for public school students and college-entrance-test scores for private school students. Principals filled out an extensive questionnaire.

Tom Hoffer, a senior research director at the NORC, then did a regression analysis of the data, comparing them with other data gathered about high schools in the six metropolitan areas. The magazine’s analysis measures schools against themselves, rather than against each other, Mr. Hoffer said.

The magazine then listed the “outstanding” schools by category, such as urban public or suburban Catholic, for each of the six cities.

“This has identified a lot of diamonds in the rough,” Mr. Toch said.

U.S. News does not prescribe any single model for an outstanding high school, he added. “Schools are free to use any teaching method and organize themselves in any way they want in order to produce.”

Mr. Relic of the NAIS, which includes many of the nation’s best-known boarding schools and day schools, has called U.S. News’ report a “de facto ranking,” even though the magazine has not ranked the schools in any order.

Doing a ‘Disservice’?

Even listing outstanding schools is a “disservice,” Mr. Relic argued, because education should not be treated as if it were a consumer commodity.

“Do that for toasters, but don’t do that for schools,” he said.

Jay Mathews, a Washington Post education reporter and the author of Class Struggle: What’s Wrong (and Right) with America’s Best Public High Schools, said school officials are not fond of evaluation measures over which they have no control.

“Clearly, educators hate any attempts to rank schools,” said Mr. Mathews, who developed a rudimentary system for ranking public high schools based on Advanced Placement test-taking rates.

Public and Catholic school principals declined to join the independent schools’ boycott.

Robert Mahaffey, the communications director for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said that his group remains concerned about rating and listing good schools, but that U.S. News “went about it with incredible fairness.”

Michael J. Guerra, the director of secondary education for the National Catholic Educational Association, expressed concern that the magazine has, in effect, compiled a ranking because it left some excellent Catholic schools off its list.

But he added that the issue “did not seem to rise to the level of [calling for] a boycott.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 13, 1999 edition of Education Week as U.S. News Selects 96 ‘Outstanding’ Schools


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