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Odd Math for 'Best High Schools' List

PUBLISHED: May 17, 2006 | By MICHAEL WINERIP | New York Times

YOU would think they'd be celebrating in Rye Brook, N.Y. The local high school in that prosperous suburban Westchester district, Blind Brook High, jumped from being ranked No. 200 on Newsweek's list of America's Best High Schools in 2005, all the way up to No. 88 on the 2006 list.

But at last week's school board meeting, there was Monroe Haas, a longtime board member, blasting the Newsweek rankings as "meaningless," "ridiculous," "illegitimate" and "journalistic Barnum & Bailey."

Newsweek says it can rank all 25,000 public high schools in the United States by assigning a precise numerical value — calculated to three decimal points — based on a single variable: the number of College Board Advanced Placement exams taken by students at a high school, divided by the number of graduating seniors.

The idea is that schools should be recognized for pushing even average students to take challenging AP courses, the more, the better.

How the students score on the AP tests does not figure into the Newsweek ranking. As Mr. Haas pointed out, "every student at the school can fail every AP test, but as long as lots of students take the tests, you can still be one of Newsweek's best high schools."

A rating system that rewards quantity without measuring quality produces some truly bizarre results.

For example, Foshay Learning Center, a high-poverty school in Los Angeles, is ranked No. 414 on Newsweek's list with a ratio of 1.888 AP tests per graduating senior; Lexington High, in well-to-do suburban Boston, is ranked No. 441, with a ratio of 1.831. For Newsweek, it does not matter that Foshay students failed 83 percent of their AP tests with scores of 1's or 2's; while at Lexington, 91 per cent were 3's, 4's or the top grade of 5 — qualifying those students for college credits.

"Shouldn't results on the test count for something?" asked Michael Jones, Lexington High's principal.

Newsweek's one-variable-takes-all ratings of the 1,200 best high schools are often at odds with federal, state and local assessment systems that typically use more than a dozen measurements of performance.

Newsweek ranks Eastside High in Gainesville, Fla., as the sixth best high school in America. The state of Florida gives Eastside a C grade, which means there are 1,846 A or B schools rated ahead of Eastside in Florida alone. The Florida report card reveals that Eastside has 1,028 students, more than half of them African-American; only 13 percent of those 589 African-American children are reading at grade level. At the sixth best school in America?

Nor is this an anomaly. Hillsborough High in Tampa, Newsweek's 21st best school in America, and Pensacola High, 38th best, both have D ratings from Florida, meaning that 2,465 of Florida's 2,773 schools are considered better. At both of these "Best" schools only 15 to 20 percent of black and Hispanic children read at grade level.

Los Angeles has 700 schools, and last year it singled out the nine lowest performing for reorganization. All failed to make adequate academic progress under the federal No Child Left Behind law for five straight years. On the city's nine-worst list were Locke High, 520th best on the 2005 Newsweek list, Fremont High, 872nd best on the list, and Roosevelt High, 990th best.

Locke's high dropout rate — two-thirds of the students leave between ninth grade and senior year — actually helps its Newsweek rating. It means the number of graduating seniors is so small that even if they take a modest number of AP exams, Locke's ratio looks great. (Not that it matters, but Locke students failed 73 percent of their AP exams with 1's or 2's.)

And so, it is not hard to find busloads of educators who agree with Daniel Hastings, M.I.T.'s dean for undergraduate education. "It does not make sense to evaluate high schools on this basis alone," he said. Asked about Newsweek's rankings, Les Perelman, a director of undergraduate writing at M.I.T., quoted H. L. Mencken, "For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong."

Even the creator of the Newsweek list, Jay Mathews, refers to it as his "much maligned ranking system." Mr. Mathews is a well respected education columnist for The Washington Post and a contributing editor for Newsweek, which is owned by the Post company. Indeed, Mr. Mathews is far more admired than the ranking system he created.

"The biggest surprise for me," said Willard Dix, a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory High School, "is that Jay Mathews, a guy I respect when he's writing about college admissions, devised this ratio. I said: 'How is that possible? Did they drive a dump truck full of money up to his house?' "

There are those who suspect that Newsweek is looking for a cash cow to rival the annual Best College list produced by U.S. News & World Report magazine, which uses 18 variables for its rankings. When called for comment about the list, Newsweek referred questions to Mr. Mathews.

He acknowledged that his list is a money maker. Newsweek features it on the cover, and has done the rankings five times since its 1998 debut. "I know last year's issue sold very well and that's why we did it again," he said.

Mr. Mathews said the very beauty of the list is its simplicity. "It's meant to be narrow so people will understand what I'm measuring and can decide if it makes sense," he said. "Even if most people disagree, I'm delighted we are having this debate."

The idea for the rankings, he said, grew from two reporting experiences that convinced him that it is crucial for high schools to offer college work to as many students as possible. In the 1980's, he wrote a book about Jaime Escalante, a teacher in Los Angeles who inspired his immigrant students to excel by pushing them to take AP math. Mr. Escalante became the model for the hero teacher in the 1988 movie "Stand and Deliver."

MR. MATHEWS developed the rankings for his 1998 book, "Class Struggle," set in part at Mamaroneck High, in Westchester, where, he said, he saw students who wanted to take AP courses excluded if their previous class work was not good enough.

Mr. Jones, the Lexington principal, pointed out that there are so many good things at his school not captured by the Newsweek ratings, including the math team, computer team, debate team and jazz combo, which all compete in national competitions; 23 first place winners in the state science fair; and a graduation rate of nearly 100 percent at a school where 90 percent go to four-year colleges and 5 percent to the Ivy League.

Mr. Mathews said he doesn't include such things because they can't be quantified. He said he doesn't factor in how students actually do on the AP tests, because then schools would let only top students take AP tests. "I know those schools you mention in Florida and California with the high failure rates have lots of problems," he said, "but at least this recognizes they're doing something right."

And that makes them the best in America? "I would have preferred we call the list the most challenging schools, the schools trying to reach as many kids as possible," he said. "But I will defend 'Best.' 'Best' is a very elastic term in our society."

Red Alert!
Let's Opt Out of the April 2014 NYS Tests

Parents can refuse to allow their child to take the State high stakes tests. Hand in this letter to your principal [other formats: .pdf .odt .doc]. En Español: [otros formatos: .pdf .odt .doc] Send your child to school and ask that an alternative activity be planned for him/her during the 6 days of testing.

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Did You Know?
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