Written by Karen Gellender Friday, 18 June 2010 00:00
On Newsweek’s annual “America’s Best High Schools” list, Jericho High School came in #32 in the nation, as well as second in the state, while Syosset High School came in over a hundred ranks behind at #142. Despite the gap in their rankings, administrators from both schools shared many of the same concerns about the ultimate value of the list, and the logical soundness of judging a high school by any one criterion.
Newsweek’s list, which takes the total number of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or Cambridge (AICE) tests given at a school each year and divides that by the number of seniors graduating in May or June- a metric devised by Jay Mathews of the Washington Post- has been the subject of criticism for its methodology since its inception in 1998.
Jericho Schools Superintendent Henry L. Grishman said that he was very pleased and proud of the students of Jericho High School for earning such a high ranking, however he was also quick to acknowledge the perceived limitations of the Newsweek list, calling the Mathews measure “…a very narrow measure, and by far not the only measure of a high-quality, comprehensive high school.”
The Jericho superintendent went on to say that if he were in the position of a parent in the process of choosing a school district, he would be interested in a large number of factors that the Newsweek list does not take into account: the breadth of the art and music programs, the teacher to student ratio, the variety of different clubs available to students, and many other features of the high school experience.
Grishman did say that the amount of participation in AP courses “has some significance” as far as detecting the overall academic rigor of a high school, but reiterated that he sees the Mathews measure as only one among many ways of measuring academic excellence.
Syosset Principal Dr. Jorge E. Schneider was blunt in his criticism of the list: “For people who know education, it doesn’t mean anything: if you talk to educators, they know it doesn’t mean anything.” According to Schneider, Syosset administrators discussed the implications of Syosset’s placement on the list when it first came out, but no longer pay much attention to it. Schneider characterized Mathews as a sensationalist who courts controversy with a ranking system he knows is meaningless, and insults his audience by claiming that they need to be manipulated for their own good.
Lest the Syosset principal’s bold criticisms be dismissed as sour grapes, it is important to note that many of Schneider’s comments are consistent with Mathews’ own explanation for his methods, given on Newsweek’s website:
“I am mildly ashamed of my reason for ranking, but I do it anyway. I want people to pay attention to this issue, because I think it is vitally important for the improvement of American high schools. Like most journalists, I learned long ago that we humans are tribal primates with a deep commitment to pecking orders. We cannot resist looking at ranked lists. It doesn’t matter what it is—SUVs, ice-cream stores, football teams, fertilizer dispensers. We want to see who is on top and who is not. So I rank to get attention, with the hope that people will argue about the list and, in the process, think about the issues it raises,” Mathews states.
“We shouldn’t need someone like Mathews to make us look at our instructional program- we do that every day,” said Schneider in response to Mathews’ explanation.
Schneider did comment that the list was beneficial at least in the sense that it causes some schools to make their programs more challenging in the hopes of earning a place on the list.
According to Newsweek, only the top six percent of high schools in the nation make the list every year.