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Class Struggle
In-depth coverage: Education Page |  The Answer Sheet
Posted at 02:10 AM ET, 05/22/2012

My unbiased guide to 3 high school lists

Okay. Maybe I’m not totally unbiased. One of the three high school rankings that just came out is mine. But I had something to do with the other two. One was partly inspired by a friendly argument I had with other education experts and the other was created to replace my list when I moved it to the Post last year.

All three lists are produced by good people waving the tattered but still proud flag of American accountability journalism. They are the Washington Post High School Challenge using my Challenge Index, and lists by U.S. News and Newsweek using different methodologies.

If your school is on any of these lists, you should be happy. They recognize schools with many admirable features. But still, the three lists are driving high school officials crazy. This is the first time there have been three in one year. People have trouble telling us apart.

My list began in 1998 in Newsweek, where I served as a contributing editor while keeping my day job as an education writer and then columnist for the Post. The U.S. News list was launched in 2007 by people who disagreed with my shunning of test scores in my rankings, and wanted to add high schools to the magazine’s long lists of college lists. The new Newsweek list began last year after the Washington Post Co. sold Newsweek and I moved my list to my newspaper, my professional home for 41 years.

Like U.S. News, the new Newsweek list uses test scores in addition to the college-level test participation rates that have been my sole criterion. There was no U.S. News list last year because it was on sabbatical while hooking up with a new numbers-crunching partner, the American Institutes for Research, and sponsor, Dell.

I think all three lists have their merits, although I wish the Newsweek list had more schools. It only ranks 1,000, while U.S. News and I do about 2,000. I think Newsweek ignores many schools that would meet its criteria. I only say that because those schools e-mail me and complain, thinking I am still the Newsweek list guy.

Newsweek and I use 2011 data. U. S. News uses 2010 data.

Some schools we share. There are 30 that appear in the top 100 of all three lists, including one Washington area school, George Mason in Falls Church. (That school is hallowed in my memory because it once let me pose as a student so I could take the five-hour Higher Level International Baccalaureate 20th Century History exam. The experience almost killed me.)

Most of the schools in my top 100 are not on the other two lists’ top 100s. I share 48 schools in my top 100 with Newsweek and 39 with U.S. News.

The key difference between my list and theirs, at least in analyzing the top 100, is that I exclude the 22 public magnet or charter schools that have SAT or ACT averages above the highest averages for any regular enrollment public school in the country. My list is designed to recognize schools that have the most success involving average students in college-level courses and tests, like Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and the Advanced International Certificate of Education. Those 22 schools have few or no average students, so my methodology won’t work with them.

The fact that I do not use test score results and the other two lists do may also explain our differences. Using test scores to compare schools gives too much weight to parental income — the key factor in student achievement — and too little weight to what educators are doing to raise the achievement of every child, at least in my view.

As a result, I have more schools on my top 100 list that have significant numbers of low-income students. I have 21 schools where the percentage of students poor enough to qualify for federal lunch subsidies is over 50 percent. Newsweek has nine. It appears that the number of such schools on the U.S. News list is also less than mine, although I haven’t had time to search their profiles for the poverty percentage of each school. (I also had, for the first time, some affluent private schools, the only list with those, but it didn't make much of a difference.)

Have fun with these lists. They provide a lot of information, like celebrity alums and school colors, unrelated to academic achievement.

If you know of a school that is not on my list, but gave at least as many AP, IB or AICE tests in 2011 as it had graduating seniors, have its officials e-mail me at mathewsj@washpost.com. I may want to add it to my list.

By  |  02:10 AM ET, 05/22/2012

 
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