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Life Arts    H3'ed 6/26/09

Garbage In, Newsweek Data Out

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Message Patrick Mattimore
Earlier this month, Newsweek released its annual rankings of the country's "top" public high schools. The rankings are compiled by taking the total number of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or Cambridge tests given at a school and dividing that by the number of graduating seniors. Relatively few schools on the rankings list offer either IB or Cambridge tests- for example, over 80% of the top 200 schools offer only AP- so the ranking is primarily based on the numbers of AP tests high schools administer. The 1500 schools on the list supposedly represent the top 6% of all public high schools in the country.

The Newsweek rankings have no quality control. Schools are ranked by how many tests the students take, not according to how students perform on the tests. That's like ranking a football team by adding up the players' jersey numbers.

Florida has 35 of the top 200 schools on the list, more than any other state. On the surface, the state of Florida is doing an excellent job educating students. Looking inside the numbers a little bit however, tells a different story and a cautionary tale about relying on a news magazine's rankings.

The AP program is a series of 37 college-level courses students take in high school, for which they may receive college credit. The national AP exam, administered by the College Board, is scored on a scale of 1 to 5, with 3 being considered a passing score. Some colleges will grant students credit for an exam grade of 3, but, increasingly, more-selective universities require a 4 or 5.

AP has enjoyed phenomenal growth- about 10% per year for the last decade.

Expansion has been particularly pronounced in Florida where the number of students taking AP classes in Florida jumped from 68,000 to 118,000 between 2004-2008. Florida students took more AP exams than students in any other state except California, which of course, has many more students.

The problem is that the percentage of students passing AP exams, based on the numbers of students taking the exams, is declining. Since 1988, the percentage of scores receiving passing grades has declined by about 10% nationally.

AP failure is particularly acute in Florida where only about 44% of AP exams taken in 2008 received passing scores. By way of contrast, the national figure is 57%. Florida has a lower passing percentage of exams than any other state, including the District of Columbia.

The numbers for minority non-Asian students are particularly discouraging. In 2008, approximately 20% of exams taken by African-American students in Florida achieved passing scores; about 58% of all AP exams taken by that group received the lowest possible score of 1.

Of course, none of that gets reported as the schools on Newsweek's "best high school's list" have queued up for attention in their local newspapers these past few weeks.
For example, there's a nice story about Corbett High School in Oregon in the "Gresham Outlook." Corbett ranked #8 out of the more than 27,000 public high schools. Despite that, less than one third of the graduating seniors passed a single AP exam at Corbett.

With an index over 16, the top-rated school in the country was Talented and Gifted High School in Dallas. Yet, even with students taking more AP exams than anywhere else in the country less than two-thirds of graduating seniors from Talented and Gifted high passed one exam. To understand how mediocre that is, consider that some states, such as Connecticut, had over 70% of all the AP exams taken receive passing scores.

There are other anomalies in the rankings. Northcoast Preparatory and Performing Arts High School was rated the 30th best high school in the nation and the third best public high school in California. Yet, there are only 18 graduating seniors. That makes Northcoast a behemoth however, compared to Eastern Sierra Academy, also in California, which had 7 graduating seniors out of a total school population of 25, but was nevertheless one of the top 200 schools in America. Can schools with total graduating classes smaller than the size of an average class in most high schools really be considered to be better than 99% of all public high schools?

As judged by other criteria, the Newsweek rankings are a bust as well. Three of the top fifty national schools from Florida, Eastside High #20, (Gainesville), Hillsborough High #46 (Tampa), and Rickards High #48 (Tallahassee) all failed to make adequate yearly progress last year according to federal standards. The schools did not perform particularly well on state standards either as none of them were denominated blue ribbon schools.  At Eastside, 48% of students did not meet the state reading standard. At Hillsborough that figure was 51% and at Rickards 58%.  A bare majority (56%) met the state science standard at Hillsborough whereas a majority of students at Eastside (54%) failed to meet that same standard. Over two-thirds of Rickards students (69%) could not meet the Florida science standard and the school was rated only a "C" by the State Board of Education.

A report published in April by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute documents concerns expressed by AP teachers that the program may be expanding too rapidly. A majority of the teachers surveyed said that only students who are deemed capable to handle AP material should take the courses. Nevertheless, 69% of the teachers reported that AP classes at their schools are open to all students.

While overwhelmingly positive about the AP program, 63% of AP teachers in the Fordham study suggested that more screening of students to make sure they are ready to do AP level work would improve the program.

Scant attention is paid to the suspect methodology Newsweek uses to arrive at its rankings. Newspapers, starved for positive headlines about their schools, dutifully follow Newsweek's lead. The public is then badly misled into comparing high schools based on worthless criteria. Newsweek would do everyone a favor if it discontinued ranking high schools. Barring that, local newspapers should demand a little more evidence of excellence before parroting Newsweek's mantra.

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Freelance journalist; fellow, Institute for Analytic Journalism.
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