Ranking High Schools: How Rank, Part I

by Hilary Crowe

As 2007 grinds to a halt, everyone and their megalomaniac-of-a-mother publication is ranking their “Top 10's of the year." So, it goes without saying that U.S. News and World Report, ever staving off the looming Grim Reaper of declining ad revenue and the switch from print to web, has jumped on the vituperative bandwagon. Following the success of its annual “America’s Best Colleges” issue, the magazine has released the latest installment of separating the wheat from the chaff with its ranking of “America’s Best [Public] High Schools,” giving their loyal obsessers yet another hit of the “where-do-I-stand-in-relation-to-my-peers (a.k.a. competitors)” academic amphetamine.

Many of us current coeds know that group of addicts all too well: those self-proclaimed “high achievers” and “type A” personalities, running around classrooms like chickens with their heads cut off, having an aneurism about midterms, manically punching numbers and percentages into their seriously over-compensated graphing calculators to figure out exactly how many points they need to score on the test or how much they have to study to maintain that all too precarious A. All this is done, mind you, to save time, energy, and above all else, effort. Would it be too much to expect that students just try to do their best every time? I see the larvae of inefficacy in the government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) hatched in college everyday.

I say, it's time to get out the buckets of motivational and moral malathion and zap those pesky habits before they mature. How? For starters, stop the sensational rankings that imbue exaltation and a fair amount of anxiety on the part of students (who face ever-increasing pressures and challenges in snagging a seat at an institution of higher learning) based on dubiously-arrived at statistical information and arbitrarily appropriated standards. Students have enough pressure trying to stay motivated and undefeated in the flaming-hoop-jumping four-year process that is applying to colleges as it is, without feeling doomed to community college (which, despite what U.S. News would have one believe is a perfectly viable if now stigmatized inroad to higher education) or a full-time job at Mickey D’s until they’re ready to collect Social Security (yet another source of future stress plaguing this generation) because their high school isn’t one of the “best.”

A word of assuagement to those reading this who have already reached for their inhaler or anti-depressants (with constant rankings like this, it’s no wonder this generation is the most medicated for depression and anxiety). Of the 18,790 public high schools and the more than 1,900 colleges considered, how many do you really think U.S. News actually visited: got out of their office, walked into a school, and talked to students, parents and teachers? Or checked to see if the data reflected classroom realities? Only the ones they statistically deemed worthy of front page photos - smiling, diverse children clutching brown bag lunches as they tinker with their NASA-partnership satellites. To be fair, U.S. News does state that “to make the cut, schools have to provide a good education across their entire student body, not just for some students.” This is measured by whether or not students, both the majority and the “least-advantaged black, Hispanic, and low-income students” are performing better than average for “similar students in the state.” U.S. News assumes that such students have less than intellectually cultivating home environments and rely solely on the institutional efforts of education. This objective is also undermined when the entire student body is hand picked by the school, as is the case with magnet and charter schools.

Don’t get me wrong – I think it’s downright marvelous that these brilliant, capable students are getting the great education they deserve. It just makes me wonder why the young men and women at the elite Thomas Jefferson High School in Alexandria, Virginia – America’s top high school according to U.S. News (go ahead parents and faculty, wet yourselves mulling over the Ivy League prospects) – have access to such educational enhancement and encouragement, while other students clearly do not. Obviously there are certain socioeconomic and aptitude factors at play (Thomas Jefferson is an extremely selective magnet school, after all), but instead of ranking the aspects of a great school and its gifted pupils for all to see – number of Advanced Placement (AP) tests taken per student and SAT scores are among a few factors of consideration – why not analyze (as much as you can with statistical data amalgamation and without having visited all the schools in the running) administrative and faculty practices and methods of education and include that in the rankings?

(To read on to Part II, please scroll down, or click here.)

(Photo by scui3asteveo via Flickr, using a Creative Commons License.)

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