Thursday, May 12, 2005

Newsweek's "100 Best Schools in America"

Newsweek's cover story this week is its ranking of the 100 "best" public high schools in America. Reporter Jay Mathews ranked the schools using a single criterion: "the number of Advanced Placement (AP) and/or International Baccalaureate (IB) tests taken by all students at a school in 2004, divided by the number of graduating seniors." "NEWSWEEK's List is based on the conviction that no other standard works as well to measure a high school's success at challenging all students to perform at a high level," Mathews writes. The idea is that students who take AP and IB classes are more likely to graduate from college, therefore schools with the largest percentage of tests taken per student were doing the best.

In the accompanying article, "How to Build a Better High School," and the list's FAQ sheet, Mathews argues:

"Some studies suggest that [the relatively small number of students actually taking AP and IB classes] may be one reason that so many students who start college find they do not have the academic muscles to survive and get a degree."

"The best predictor of college graduation, based on the records of a cohort of 8,700 students, was not good high school grades or test scores, but whether or not a student has an intense academic experience in high school by taking challenging courses. ..."(Question 3)

While these studies may indeed show a correlation between taking academically challenging courses and success in college, to attribute the success to taking one class rather than another is fallacious. Not every student will take an AP or IB course, no matter how much you encourage them to do so. The opening paragraph of "How to Build..." admits that, after finding out how rigorous the coursework at the #1 ranked school is, "A few of the school's 325 students fled, preferring a less strenuous life at a regular public school." By selecting for schools which have a large number of students in AP and IB courses, you have already narrowed the field to students who are intelligent, at least reading at grade level, and dedicated to their education. Aren't those three qualities predictors of college success whether or not the student takes college level classes in high school? Conversely, aren't students who don't want to bother with academic rigor in high school, going to have a similar attitude as university freshmen? So aren't we confusing the potential of students who are willing to take AP courses with the effect of the courses themselves?

Even if we overlook this circular argument, the fact remains that this list and its supporting news articles are based in opinion, not fact. The author says,

"Teacher quality, extracurricular activities and other important factors are too subjective for a ranked list. Participation in challenging courses, on the other hand, can be counted... I think that this [# of students taking AP and IB courses] is the most important quantitative measure one can make of a high school, and I think one of the strengths of this list is the narrowness of my criteria. [Although he uses only one criterion.]" (Question 5) Italics on what we called in fifth grade "opinion flags" and smart-aleck comments are mine.

This quote makes it obvious that this ranking is nothing more than one man's opinion of what really matters (another opinion flag) in high school curricula. I realize every news story has to have a hook, which means a slant, which means opinion, but shouldn't that hook be an accurate reflection of fact, rather than bad science in support of Mathews' pet social engineering project?

"I do not count passing rates because I found that most American high schools keep their passing rates artificially high by allowing only A students to take the courses. In some cases, they open the courses to all but wrongly encourage only the best students to take the tests."(Again, Question 3)

Of course, one way to avoid this would be to not publish these kinds of specious rankings in the first place and let educators focus on education instead of ways to play the "Avoid National Humiliation" game.

It shouldn't come as any surprise that the #1 school on Newsweek's list is...Jefferson County International Baccalaureate School in Alabama! After all, at an IB school every student takes IB classes and a school's rank is based solely on the number of IB tests taken per student. But the list is not biased! Glory Be! (Jon Stewart, where are you when I need you?)

In my opinion, if high school academics were more rigorous, then more people (reporters, editors and readers) would realize this "news" story is fundamentally flawed.

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