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My Annual Rant Against US News and World Report’s Ratings

May 13, 2018

It’s the time of year when newspapers across America trumpet the schools in their states who achieve the highest ratings in their State and, in some cases, in the entire nation based on the US News and World Report’s metrics… and it’s the time of year when bloggers like me remind readers that these ratings are completely bogus because they are primarily based on standardized tests which, in turn, are inextricably linked to family affluence and education.

To find out how the US News and World Report calculates their rankings, one has to scroll all the way to the bottom of the page touting the importance of the ratings past the click-bait headlines listing the top high schools overall, the top charter schools, the top STEM schools, to a hot-link in the lower right hand corner. Once the link is clicked, the reader is led to another series of links where eventually the reader learns that in calculating the rankings:

…U.S. News & World Report teamed with North Carolina-based RTI International, a global nonprofit social science research firm.

RTI implemented the U.S. News comprehensive rankings methodology, which is based on these key principles: that a great high school must serve all of its students well, not just those who are college bound, and that it must be able to produce measurable academic outcomes to show it is successfully educating its student body across a range of performance indicators.

This sounds very high-minded, but the four step process is ultimately based on standardized tests and/or family income. .

Step One, for example, purports to determine “...whether each school’s students were performing better than statistically expected for students in that state (in standardized tests).” How is this done? “...(B)y looking at reading and math results for all students on each state’s high school (standardized) proficiency tests”Schools scoring in the top 10% were automatically carried forward, those scoring in the lowest 10% were dropped, and some manipulations were applied to identify schools serving disadvantaged students that performed “…much better than statistical expectations.” 

Step 2 “...assessed whether their historically underserved students – black, Hispanic and low-income – performed at or better than the state average (on standardized tests) for historically underserved students.

Step 3 looked at graduation rates, eliminating any schools that failed to graduate 80% of the cohort that entered the school. This is indirectly linked to standardized tests since 12 states require the passage of such a test to earn a diploma. But it is inextricably linked to family income since more than one third of all drop outs were raised in poverty.

Step 4 is the clincher. For schools whose students score well on State standardized tests and whose students graduate at an 80% rate, the ultimate benchmark is “college-readiness performance” – which is determined by “...using Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate (standardized) test data as the benchmark for success.” 

So how does a school assure itself of high ratings in the annual US News and World Report’s index? Easy: it attracts students who aspire to college, students who enroll in AP and IB courses, students who pay for the AP and IB assessments, and students who do well on those tests. This creates a barrier to entry that precludes hundreds if not thousands of schools since schools or students must pay fees for each test they take, schools must pay to have teachers trained to offer AP and IB courses, and IB certified schools must pay annual fees in excess of $11,000.

And, as noted in earlier posts decrying these rankings, the whole system is based on the assumption that schools enrolling students who score well on standardized tests are meritorious. One would hope that US News and World Report writers realize that quality should be based on something more than standardized tests scores, but the test scores are seemingly precise and objective, readily attainable from public data-bases that are relatively inexpensive to glean data from from, and provide an easy means for sorting and selecting schools. In the end, the selective public and charter schools and the public schools serving the children of affluent and well educated parent achieve medals… and the vicious cycle of poverty continues.


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