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Editorial: High School Rankings: We Need Some New Metrics

A little less than two years ago, I wrote an article on the annual America’s Best High Schools List (“Jericho #32, Syosset #142 On Newsweek’s ‘America’s Best High Schools’ List”, June 18, 2010). At the time, longtime SHS principal Dr. Jorge E. Schneider had yet to retire, and I remember being a little shocked at how blunt he was in his criticism of the list. Schneider said the list is meaningless because the metric it uses—the amount of AP tests given in an academic year divided by the overall number of students, devised by Jay Mathews of the Washington Post—is completely arbitrary.

One could dismiss Schneider’s opinion as sour grapes, since Jericho routinely beats the stuffing out of Syosset in the rankings (and that was going on even back when I was an SHS student), but Schneider is a man of conviction, and I, for one, was convinced he was speaking from the heart. He didn’t care about his district’s placement because he saw the list as a cynically motivated attempt to draw media attention to education in general, not a legitimate tool to help districts evaluate their instructional programs.

Jericho should be proud that it routinely places well, since an upper-tier district should be giving a lot of AP exams, anyway—that, no one really disputes. However, the only reason why the scores on the AP tests aren’t taken into account in the rankings (and Mathews admits this) is because then, the math gets really complicated. As the list stands now, an average district could encourage every single one of its students to take five AP tests, have all the students do horrendously badly on them, and beat Syosset and Jericho in the rankings; in fact, for all we know, that’s already happened.

A school-ranking system that better represents reality should take into account not only the amount of AP tests given, but the scores on those tests; a school that administers fewer tests but boasts consistently great scores should not be automatically out of the running. Schools should get bonus points if they have great art and music programs, which Syosset and Jericho both do. The amount of extracurricular activities available, and how students place in the competitive components of those activities, should also count for something. Obviously not everything can be quantified, but by at least trying to integrate non-test based attributes into the rankings would be a massive improvement.

Sure: the math is going to get hard. Then again, the best high schools in America are supposed to be challenging students to strive for the very best that they can achieve: if the people in charge of measuring these schools against each other can’t be bothered to buckle down and do some hard work to produce a ranking list that’s a) fair and b) makes sense, what kind of message does that send?