Schools Perplexed by Their High 'U.S News & World Report' Rankings

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Green Valley High School in Henderson, Nevada, is the 13th best in the nation, according to  the prestigious list. But the principal says that's impossible. 

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Landing on U.S. News & World Report's list of "Best High Schools" should have been a cause for celebration, not headaches. But that's not what's played out for educators in at least two states that apparently reported incorrect student information to the federal database used to help determine the rankings.

Jeff Horn, principal of Green Valley High School in Henderson, Nevada, concedes his first reaction wasn't exactly delight when he learned that his campus was No. 13 on U.S. News' rankings. Instead, he wondered if there had been a mistake.

Green Valley is a standout campus in Clark County, the nation's fifth-largest school district, with an enviable record of athletic championships, academic honors, and a nationally recognized fine arts program.

But the 13th best in the nation? Really?

"I know we're great, but I'm not sure we're that great," Horn told me. "We have a lot to be proud of here, and we're still proud of our students and staff regardless of the list."

The publication's formula for determining the best campuses is a combination of overall school performance on statewide proficiency tests, factoring in considerations for populations of disadvantaged students who typically score lower on such assessments. Schools that did well enough on those factors were then evaluated for "college readiness," using student achievement on Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate (IB) exams. U.S. News awarded gold, silver, or bronze medals to more than 4,850 top-performing schools.

As the Las Vegas Sun reported, incorrect student data for several high schools was filed by the Nevada Education Department to the Common Core of Data, a federal database used to compile statistics at the national level. In 2009, the year U.S. News used for the current rankings, Green Valley was shown as having 477 students -- including 78 seniors. The total enrollment is a factor in the news publication's formula for determining how well the school serves its at-risk populations.

The number of seniors is a key component for the "college readiness" scale, which is determined by taking the number of seniors who took and passed at least one AP or IB exam and dividing it by the total number of students in the senior class. U.S. News gave Green Valley (and the 25 other top-ranking high schools) perfect scores on that equation. Horn said there is no way that's accurate.

In response to media reports questioning the accuracy of the rankings, Robert Morse, U.S. News' director of data and research, put out a blog posting that he was looking into the situation and that the problem apparently originated with the Core of Common Data.

A subsequent investigation has determined that there was indeed incorrect information in the federal database, said Marilyn Seastrom, chief statistician and acting deputy commissioner of the National Center on Education Statistics, which oversees the Core of Common Data. The safeguards in place to verify that submitted information is accurate didn't catch the errors, Seastrom said.The error for Green Valley originated with data submitted by the Nevada Department of Education.

Seastrom told me her staff has reviewed the database's information for the top 100 schools in the rankings. So far, the only errors identified were for Green Valley and two California campuses, San Marcos High School (No. 11), and Dublin High School (No. 12) -- which had already publicly voiced its own doubts about its high ranking.

"In Dublin, we model what we teach, and we teach the importance of truth," wrote Dublin Unified School District Superintendent Stephen Hanke in a press release. "Our high school may not be ranked 12 according to a magazine, but the manner in which they are handling this disappointment demonstrates that they are number one when it comes to maturity, integrity and character."

NCES already has a contract in place to look at ways to improve how data is collected and checked, and reviewing the rest of the schools on the U.S. News list will be a starting point, Seastrom said.

"We are a statistical agency, and we should be putting out high-quality data that's the best we can and not have any problems," Seastrom said, adding that she did not believe the reporting errors cost the schools federal funding. "This was a learning experience for us."

What the U.S. News rankings do suggest is that some public school students are thriving in environments tailored to meet their specific educational needs and interests. Among the top 20 campuses in the U.S. News' overall rankings, two were magnet schools, and four were charter schools.

The rankings offer a snapshot of the relative successfulness of a high school, but the data doesn't necessarily reflect how well a student is prepared for life after graduation. What percentage of the students at the top-ranking high schools go on to post-secondary success, be it college or the workforce? How many of them require remedial classes as college freshmen? How many years did it take them to earn their degree? These are the sorts of questions educators and policymakers need to ask as part of the broader debate over the future of K-12 education at the local, state and national level.


This post also appears at The Educated Reporter, an Atlantic partner site.

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Emily Richmond is the public editor for the National Education Writers Association. She was previously the education reporter for the Las Vegas Sun.

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