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Media: Actually, Ranking High Schools Can Be Enormously Useful

#edjourn  Screen shot 2014-09-11 at 4.31.15 PMIt's not hard to relate to Libby Nelson'spoint of view in a recent Vox piece (Ranking high schools tells you which schools are rich or selective ), in which she notes that the rankings from places like the Daily Beast  mostly function to tell us what we already know -- that wealthier, whiter communities generate higher-performing high schools and that news outlets put out the lists to generate web traffic rather than to shed light on any particular phenomenon.

"The public schools that top these lists are mostly selective magnet schools that get to pick which students they educate. If they're not, they're much likely to enroll fewer poor students than public schools as a whole." That -- plus the reality that few families move for high school like they do for college -- explain why ranking high schools like this "makes no sense at all."

But the high school rankings phenomenon isn't as recent as Nelson seems to imagine, isn't quite as empty of substance or usefulness as it might seem, and isn't all that different than stories that Nelson and her colleagues at Vox (and here) sometimes also run.

The Washington Post's challenge index is both long-running (if much-maligned) and does give us a sense of how widely accessible AP courses are to high schools and how successful high schools are at helping students (of all income levels) master that material. 

The Newsweek & Daily Beast both now include lists of schools that beat the odds, which is an important reminder that -- sometimes at least -- schools in high-poverty districts can graduate low-income kids who are prepared for college and beyond. Here's the top of the list from The Daily Beast:

Screen shot 2014-09-11 at 4.31.00 PM

Most important of all, schools and districts aren't entirely helpless when it comes to changing student performance, as Nelson suggests. Districts and high schools with similar poverty rates perform quite differently on the NAEP TUDA assessment. Traditional districts in many parts of the country can float bonds and raise taxes to provide more resources for schools. And it can be enormously helpful for educators and policymakers to see which schools within their districts (or which districts) perform better with high-poverty childen, even if  nobody's going to change cities to attend a better high school. 

Is there the potential for mis-use of the rankings, or gaming of the system? Sure. Are they flawed measures in various ways?  Of course. Are they clickbait for pageviews? No doubt about it.  Are the lists dominated by all the usual suspects from the usual places? Yes. But they're also potentially useful, revealing variations among schools within the same poverty ranges and challenging the notion that only low-poverty suburban schools can perform at high levels.  

Related posts: 12 New Yorker Ed Articles Vox Missed/Got WrongHow's ND Rate With Other High Flyers Like MA?Most White Kids Still Attend Majority-White SchoolsUS News Suffers High School Ranking Embarassment.

Images via Daily Beast used with permission.


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All the Animo schools are charters and thus inherently selective, and the Preuss school is both a charter and thus inherently selective, plus was busted in a big cheating scandal a few years ago. (Didn't research Bridgeport or Uplift, but that's the case with the other four.)

The L.A. Times has been an enthusiastic cheerleader for the Green Dot schools (which runs the Animo charters), but when Green Dot took over a neighborhood high school and promised not to be selective, the Times' coverage pointed out that for the first time, a Green Dot school would not be selective. In other words, one of the Animo schools' most vigorous cheerleaders readily acknowledges that they're selective. Just to refute in advance all the yada-yada from charter cheerleaders.

More questions about @libbyanelson's critique of HS ratings from @arotherham http://ow.ly/BwYbB

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