Jul 28, 2014

What's In A School Ranking?

Southwest, South, Henry take top honors. Why not others?

What's In A School Ranking?

In a triumphant press release issued Tuesday evening, Minneapolis Public Schools crowed that  yet again beat out every other school in the state in the US News and World Report rankings of best public high schools in Minnesota. Also among the top 30 were South and Patrick Henry high schools.  was not among the 145 the report listed as "best in the state."

But do these rankings tell us anything new? In one sense, not really.

As the US News & World Report staff make clear, the ranking is essentially a test of how well a school encourages its students to take either International Baccalaureate (IB) or Advanced Placement (AP) tests, and what the passing rate is for those tests. Schools were not ranked if all their students did worse than the state average, or if their poor, black, or Latino students didn't do the same among their demographic group.

The discrepancy between Southwest's and Washburn's standardized test scores are well-known to anyone with an internet connection. The big difference in their student bodies is also well-known—nearly one-fourth of Southwest's students may qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, but Washburn's is over twice that at 62 percent. Broadly speaking, then, many more of Washburn's students are more likely to be starting one or more grade levels behind, have learning difficulties, or otherwise be less academically successful than students at Southwest.

So even if Washburn was successfully closing the achievement gap, it probably would still show up behind on the US News rankings, and get no credit for its efforts.

The US News methodology does make sense in two respects, though. First, IB and AP tests are the same across the country, meaning the magazine can compare schools from Florida to Alaska. Furthermore, the prevailing orthodoxy among college admissions officers gives a boost to students who take as many challenging courses in high school as possible.

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