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Posted at 06:31 PM ET, 05/22/2011

Confessions of a school ranker

If you are a successful actor, businessman or novelist, you are likely to be famous. If you are a successful school, forget about it. That’s why most people have never heard of the two schools at the top of this year’s Washington Post High School Challenge rankings of American high schools.

Two Dallas public magnet schools — the School of Science & Engineering and the Gifted & Talented Magnet — are ranked first and second on the national list, based on participation rates on college-level tests. They share a building with four other small magnets near the middle of the city. They have been at or near the top of the list for several years, but their principals and teachers are rarely if ever seen on national news.

That is probably a good thing. Celebrity gets in the way of serious work. Engineering & Science, Talented & Gifted and the rest of the 1,910 high schools (including more than 140 in the Washington area) recognized on the list have staffs dedicated to raising students to new levels of achievement. At Science & Engineering, 63 percent of students come from families poor enough to qualify for federal lunch subsidies. At Talented & Gifted, the percentage is 33 percent. Most magnets that admit students based on academic credentials have few kids from low-income families, but these two schools work hard to convince disadvantaged students that they will thrive taking Advanced Placement courses as early as ninth grade. Those educators fulfill that promise.

In that way, I believe, the list’s focus on college-level courses and tests helps identify which schools have the staffs that make the most progress in preparing students for college.

There are other ways to judge high schools. Worth magazine and the Wall Street Journal tried ranking schools based on success in enrolling graduates at very selective colleges. Almost all of the high schools on the Worth and Wall Street Journal lists were private. This wasn’t necessarily because the teachers were better. Those lists measured the incomes and the values of the parents who, by spending money on private school, revealed how determined they were to get their children into prestigious colleges. Their willingness to sacrifice and the likelihood that they were graduates of well-known colleges themselves are what produced those high rankings, I believe — not the quality of the education at those high schools.

U.S. News & World Report started a high schools list in 2007 that I liked better. Its formula used college-level course participation, as I do in the Challenge Index, but also gave credit to schools whose disadvantaged students showed achievement gains and whose college-level test-passing rates were high. I am leery of any ranking affected by test scores because I think that gives more affluent schools a misleading advantage, but U.S. News did highlight some great schools. Unfortunately the formula was too complicated for anyone but the magazine’s number-crunchers to use — and it was hard to figure how Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County came out in first place when it had almost no low-income students.

I am still looking for ways to improve the Challenge Index while keeping it simple so anyone can use the formula. I look forward to a new list planned by the new management at Newsweek magazine to replace my list, which I have moved to The Post. Newsweek has some knowledgeable expert advisers. The competition will help both of us, as well as the parents who tell me such ratings help them make intelligent choices about high schools.

The educators and parents at Science & Engineering and Talented & Gifted say that even though few people have heard of their schools, pointing out the national recognition has protected them from bad ideas. Recently the two schools were under pressure to merge with other schools in ways that would have limited their ability to keep standards high. They fought back. Their high rankings helped them win the battle and encouraged others to take the risk of challenging students.

By  |  06:31 PM ET, 05/22/2011

 
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