The Newsweek Magazine high school rankings have just come out.
Once again I’m posting a blog commentary debunking these rankings as both invalid – based on a single measure that simply does not measure the quality or efficacy of a high school – and corrupt. And I'd like to add a warning to the local press. Please don't fall for this dishonest and corrupt PR ploy. Ignore it or debunk it, but don't hype it. You discredit yourself, your publication or outlet, and your entire profession.
I’m reposting the comment I made last year on examiner.com, with slight updates. Here's that post:
Newsweek Magazine has once again compromised both credibility and ethics by releasing its annual high school rankings feature. The "rankings" are based on one single measure -- one that is invalid as a gauge of quality and simply does not measure how "good" a high school is. They also violate journalistic ethics, as the gauge is one that directly promotes increased profits for an enterprise run by Newsweek's parent company.
The rankings are based entirely on the single criterion of how many AP (or two other similar) tests are taken by the students in the school. That's it. How the students perform on the tests is not part of the equation. Holly Hacker of the Dallas Morning News reported that at the No. 26 school, Herron High School in Herron, Ind., an average six exams were given to each graduating senior -- but only 5 percent of the graduating seniors passed one or more of the exams.
But the sheer number of exams given qualified Herron as one of the nation's supposed top high schools, despite the students' abysmal performance (or quite possibly deliberate sabotage, I would add, knowing teens all too well. I would cheer them on in this case, though).
Newsweek's description: "Public schools are ranked according to a ratio devised by [reporter/editor] Jay Mathews: the number of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate (IB) and/or Cambridge tests taken by all students at a school in 2008 divided by the number of graduating seniors."
This is so clearly not a valid gauge of a school's quality that it's hardly worth wasting words explaining. The criterion is also subject to easy manipulation, needless to say -- as is obviously happening in Herron, Ind.
Meanwhile, here's why this feature compromises Newsweek's ethics. Newsweek's parent company, the Washington Post, also owns Kaplan, the test prep powerhouse. It's also hardly necessary to explain that encouraging more students to take AP tests directly correlates with increasing Kaplan's business.
Standard journalistic ethics call for avoiding the appearance of conflict of interest. The Newsweek high school rankings emblazon the appearance of conflict of interest across the heavens.
An increasing chorus of dissenters complains each year about this feature -- including some of the "winners." In May 2008, the superintendents of 38 high-performing school districts signed a letter to Newsweek protesting the feature and requesting that their districts be excluded (a toothless request, but a meaningful gesture).
At this moment, if you Google "Newsweek top high schools 2010," the first post that comes up is the DCist blog, headlined: "Why Newsweek's Best High School List is Useless."
It's not just time-wasting but also harmful to pass authoritative-looking judgments on schools based on invalid criteria. Meanwhile, with the very survival of the news media under threat, journalistic credibility is one asset the media should struggle to keep. Newsweek is making a big mistake to compromise its ethics so shamelessly. The magazine needs to eliminate and renounce this corrupt and damaging feature.
The letter sent by superintendents from 38 high-income school districts in five states to Newsweek was intended to announce their boycott of the rankings. Actually, a boycott is impossible, because districts can’t withhold public information, but the message was made strongly. The letter is pasted below.
To the Editor,
The signers of this letter are school superintendents representing a cross section of districts, including some of the finest public schools in the nation. Many of our high schools have received top rankings in your annual edition of "Americas Best High Schools," as well as in numerous other publications. Others might never appear in such rankings, despite great achievements, because of challenges beyond the reach of your superficial approach to measuring quality.
Although some of our schools may seem to be the fortunate beneficiaries of your articles, we all believe that all schools, communities -- and your readers -- are poorly served by Newsweek's persistent efforts to use a single statistic, the number of students who sit for A.P. or I.B. exams, to rank schools.
The inventor of this flawed methodology, Jay Mathews, has insisted that it is meaningful because A.P. or I.B. participation is the sole available nation-wide measure of whether students take a rigorous program of study. He is right that there are few consistent measures of school quality, state-to-state, but that does not justify inappropriate use of the data that is available.
In reality, it is impossible to know which high schools are "the best" in the nation. Determining whether different schools do or don't offer a high quality of education requires a look at many different measures, including students' overall academic accomplishments and their subsequent performance in college, and taking into consideration the unique needs of their communities.
Students and school communities deserve better than simplistic and misleading school rankings, and that is why the signers of this letter will not respond to your request for our A.P. or I.B. test data. We respectfully insist that you omit our schools from your rankings, no matter how well we score, even if you already have our data, or obtain it in some other way.
School Districts - Superintendents:
New York Schools:
Ardsley UFSD – Jason Friedman
Bedford CSD – Debra Jackson
Blind Brook-Rye Public Schools – Ronald D. Valenti
Brewster CSD – Jane Sandbank
Bronxville UFSD – David Quattrone
Byram Hills CSD – John Chambers
Chappaqua CSD – David Fleishman
Dobbs Ferry UFSD – Debra Kaplan
Greenburgh/North Castle UFSD – Robert Maher
Hewlett-Woodmere Public Schools - Les Omotani
Katonah-Lewisboro UFSD – Robert Roelle
Mamaroneck UFSD – Paul Fried
Mt. Pleasant-Cottage School, UFSD – Norman Freimark
North Shore Schools – Ed Melnick
Ossining UFSD - Phyllis Glassman
Rye Neck UFSD – Peter Mustich
Scarsdale UFSD – Mike McGill
Spackenkill UFSD - Lois Colletta
Tuckahoe UFSD – Mike Yazurlo
Valhalla UFSD- Diane Ramos-Kelly
New Jersey Schools:
Montclair Schools - Frank Alvarez
Montgomery Schools - Sam Stewart
Tenafly Schools – Morton Sherman
Verona Public Schools – Earl Kim
Darien Schools – Don Fiftal
Simsbury Schools – Diane Ullman
Stonington Public Schools – Michael L. McKee
Wilton Public Schools - Gary Richards
Decatur Public School District #61 – Gloria J. Davis
Deerfield/Highland Park Township HS District 113 – George V. Fornero
Evanston Township High School – Eric Witherspoon
Glenbrook High School District 225 - Dave Hales
Lincoln-Way High School District 210 – Lawrence A. Wylie
New Trier High School District 203 – Linda Yonke
Oak Park and River Forest High School - Attila J. Weninger
Amherst-Pelham Regional Schools - Jere Hochman
Masconomet Regional School District - Claire Sheff Kohn
Wayland Schools – Gary Burton
Cc: The Editors of Time and US News and World Report
US News and World Report