Saturday, June 19, 2010

Grannan: Once more with feeling -- Newsweek's high school rankings are still invalid and corrupt

Guest post by Caroline Grannan.

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, 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

Connecticut Schools:

Darien Schools – Don Fiftal

Simsbury Schools – Diane Ullman

Stonington Public Schools – Michael L. McKee

Wilton Public Schools - Gary Richards

Illinois Schools:

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

Massachusetts Schools:

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


Michael Fiorillo said...

Do you mean to suggest that Jay Matthews, PR scribe r for KIPP, would also devise a measure of school achievement that aggrandizes schools that push his employers chief money-making subsidiary?

But doing that would be dishonest.

nikto said...

News of Royal Succession in LAUSD:

This guy seems to be the hand-picked successor to Cortines in LAUSD, within a couple years
or so:,0,1358741.story

Anybody know anything about
this guy?

I'd never heard of him before today.

Obviously, the machinery is in motion, as always.

nikto said...


"The Prince George's County school board is assigning legal counsel to work as a liaison with University of Louisville officials investigating allegations that Superintendent John E. Deasy may have improperly received a doctorate from the school in 2004."

The university investigation stems from reports in Kentucky news media that Deasy was awarded a doctorate of philosophy even though he only completed nine credit hours in one semester at the school. According to the university's policies, there is no set number of credits that doctor of philosophy candidates are required to obtain, however, it has been "customary to consider the equivalent of three years of full-time graduate study as minimal."

Here's the story:

These school-Deformers are looking more & more like the Mafia all the time.

"...And wut youse gonna' do abot it, huh"?