Accountability

‘Best High Schools’ Data to Be Reviewed

By Christina A. Samuels — May 21, 2012 4 min read
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The National Center for Education Statistics plans to check data on about 5,000 high schools after faulty information from the federal agency led to erroneous rankings for three high schools on U.S. News & World Report‘s yearly “Best High Schools” report.

As a part of its rankings, U.S. News uses the Common Core of Data, a rich repository of information on every public school, district, and state education agency in the country. This year’s report was based on data collected in the 2009-10 school year.

However, Jeff Horn, the principal at Green Valley High School in Henderson, Nev., noted that his school’s No. 13 ranking was based on federal statistics that mistakenly said his school had 477 students, 111 teachers, and a 100 percent passing rate on Advanced Placement tests. In actuality, the school has about 2,850 students, a student-teacher ratio that is closer to 24-to-1, and an AP pass rate of about 64 percent. Student-teacher ratios and AP pass rates are a part of the magazine’s ranking system.

The Las Vegas Sun wrote about Mr. Horn’s concerns about the data the day after the rankings were released, May 8. Within days, two California high schools noted that they, too, had high rankings based on bad data.

California Glitches

Dublin High School, in Alameda County, was listed as having 493 students, a 100 percent AP pass rate, and a student-teacher ratio of 7-to-1. The truth: The school has 1,650 students and 24 students for every teacher.

San Marcos High School, in San Diego County, which took the No. 11 spot on the U.S. News list, was also listed as having a 100 percent AP pass rate. The Common Core of Data now lists no student demographic data for the high school, but the North County Times newspaper said the page originally said there were 79 students in the 12th grade in 2009-10, compared with 556 students in 9th grade, 554 students in 10th grade, and 818 in 11th grade.

Stephen L. Hanke, the superintendent of the 7,000-student Dublin district, said in an interview that the problem in his district came from bad data generated during a move to a new student-reporting system in both the district and the state. The district notified state officials in December 2010 about the bad numbers, but the corrections apparently were not transmitted to the federal government.

“We’ve got a great high school, and we think we do great things every single day,” Mr. Hanke said."But this is also a lesson about honesty and integrity.”

Robert Morse, the director of data research for U.S. News, did not respond to Education Week‘s requests for comment on the discrepancies by press time.

Tracing the Errors

Marilyn M. Seastrom, the chief statistician for the National Center for Education Statistics, which is the statistical arm of the U.S. Department of Education, said fail-safe mechanisms at the federal level somehow did not pick up on the data problems.

When data is submitted to the federal government, it undergoes a “high-level” edit by the Education Data Exchange Network, which is supposed to check for major discrepancies, like school or district populations that change in a major way from year to year. The data is then examined again by NCES statisticians, in partnership with the U.S. Census Bureau.

In the case of Nevada, Ms. Seastrom explained that the data submitted by the state went through the two-part clean-up process, and the state was told that data on one charter school needed to be fixed.

Instead of submitting corrected data on that one school, the state had to submit an entirely new data set, she said. But the second set included additional errors that the first-level software did not pick up. Under a deadline, federal officials didn’t check all the numbers.

That problem appears to have affected six schools in Clark County, Nev., though only one made the U.S. News list.

Programmers are working to trace the software error that didn’t pick up on the problem, Ms. Seastrom said. Also, the federal government is now planning to release data in three waves, to allow states to review it for major problems as well as recheck the data for the 5,000 schools on the magazine’s list, which includes both the national and state rankings.

Many organizations rely on the Common Core of Data for educational policy research. But Steven M. Glazerman, a senior fellow at the Princeton, N.J.-based Mathematica Policy Research, said “there’s nothing surprising” about the errors to researchers who routinely work with data.

Mathematica, which conducts research for the Education Department and others, typically collects its own information, Mr. Glazerman said. But hypothetically, for a report on urban districts, the organization might use the Common Core of Data to compare the information it gathers to all urban districts nationwide.

“That kind of data doesn’t tend to change a lot at the margins,” Mr. Glazerman said. But in an “ambitious” project like U.S. News’ attempt to rank schools, he added, “small errors can really throw things off.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 23, 2012 edition of Education Week as ‘Best High Schools’ Data to Be Reviewed

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