Tests taken. Test scores. Graduation rates. These are the central data points for most high school rankings. But now there is something new — and very different.
Everybody knows about U.S. News & World Report’s famous college rankings, but they also rank high schools, based largely on standardized test scores as well as graduation rates. Washington Post education writer Jay Mathews does his long-standing “Challenge Index” rankings based not on test scores themselves but on a percentage of students in a school who took Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or Advanced International Certificate of Education tests.
But now there is a high school honors list that has a different set of priorities. It’s the Schools of Opportunity, a project launched by educators who wanted to highlight public high schools that actively seek to close opportunity gaps through 11 research-proven practices and not test scores, which are more a measure of socio-economic status than anything else.
What kind of practices? They include health and psychological support for students, judicious and fair discipline policies, high-quality teacher mentoring programs, outreach to the community, effective student and faculty support systems, and broad and enriched curriculum. Schools submit applications explaining why they believe their school should be recognized.
The project started in 2014 as a pilot program in New York and Colorado, and went national in 2015-2016, with gold and silver winners coming from states including Maryland, Georgia, California and Oregon. It is the brainchild of Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder and a professor specializing in educational policy and law; and Carol Burris, a former award-winning principal who is now executive director of the non-profit Network for Public Education.
“High test scores can be driven by best practices within schools, but even more so, they reflect rich opportunities to learn outside of school,” Welner said. “So the schools that end up at the top of best high schools lists are usually those located in advantaged communities and in schools that attract, through school-choice programs, students with relatively favorable opportunities to learn. It’s both arbitrary and absurd to judge schools based overwhelmingly on the test scores of their students.”
Burris said that the high school where she was principal for 15 years, South Side High in New York’s Rockville Centre School District, was often on the best high school lists, but that she felt the emphasis on test scores and AP programs was “rewarding community wealth and exclusivity.”
“Schools on some of the lists either selected students or had applications designed to attract only the best and most motivated students,” she said. “Kevin and I decided that it was time to reward high schools for practices designed to close the opportunity gap, regardless of student demographics and scores. That would encourage good practice.”
Among the eight 2016 gold winners is Hillsdale High School in California, which was noted for fostering a healthy school culture. Among the 12 silver honorees is Northwest High School in Germantown, Md., with its equity-minded professional development for faculty and staff. Northwest has a team of some 20 staff members who meet regularly to examine equity issues around teachers’ beliefs and school policies and structures.
Northwest High School Principal Jimmy D’Andrea said the school focuses on “ensuring equitable opportunities” and thought that recognition from a program that values the same thing would be meaningful. Northwest is incredibly diverse; its 2,350 students are 29 percent white, 27 percent African American, 20 percent Hispanic, 19 percent Asian and 5 percent students of multiple races.
“Ultimately, schools and high schools in particular are very complex learning environments, and I think it’s important to recognize that,” he said.
Malverne High School in New York was a 2015 Schools of Opportunity Gold Award winner. Principal Vincent Romano, who served as an evaluator of the 2016 applicants, said that the benefits for Malverne from having participated were “amazing.”
“The process of applying for the recognition alone was an incredible activity in self reflection as a school,” he said in an email. “The application process was completed through committees and it really required us to analyze our school culture. You started to see what was working- it helped to clarify our efforts and made us feel good about what we were doing.
“The school visit was even better because we had the opportunity to listen to our parents and students share their thoughts about the school. This was extremely gratifying and reinvigorated- It was a huge boost to morale. The award also became our calling card and I think the community started to look at Malverne as a real option. They started to think twice about sending their kids to private school.”
What a novel way to recognize high schools.
You can see the 20 schools that for 2016 here.
(For those who care, Mathews’ No. 1 school in the 2016 national rankings was a charter, BASIS Oro Valley in Arizona, while the top school in U.S. News’ national rankings was the School for the Talented and Gifted in Dallas. BASIS Oro Valley was No. 6 in U.S. News’ rankings while Talented and Gifted was No. 7 on Mathews’ list. Hillsdale and Northwest are unranked on U.S. News’ national 2016 rankings.)