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Sonoma Family Life Magazine

The Value of School Rankings—What Every Parent Should Know When School Shopping

Oct 30, 2008 12:00AM

School rankings can be a valuable tool for parents who are seeking educational success for their children.

What’s critical is knowing what is being measured in the rankings. Those that use limited data, or do not take into consideration the complex nature of what schools and educators face today, can do more harm than good to a school’s reputation. Which is often why ranking public schools generates a full range of responses – from joy, to debate over the value of ratings and consternation that some schools aren’t ranked as highly as their constituents believe they should be. The purpose of rankings is very basic – to tell parents and others in the community which schools are doing a particularly good job.

As a parent, you’ll want to know if what researchers measured is important to you and to the success of your son or daughter. For example, a ranking that only looks at the number of students who participated in Advanced Placement classes may not be relevant if your child doesn’t have access to AP classes or is not ready for advanced coursework.

Measuring all student groups

Late last year, School Evaluation Services, measured which public high schools in America were doing a good job at getting kids ready for the workplace or college – ultimately measuring which schools were preparing kids for the rest of their lives. The result was America’s Best High Schools published in partnership with U.S. News & World Report , which can be access at SchoolMatters.com/AmericasBest .

Multiple layers of data were analyzed through three rounds of evaluations. For the ranking to be meaningful, it was important that we factor in the performance of all students so we looked at student poverty rates, and we also looked at data as it related to average students and college-bound students to measure how well a school served its total student body.

First, we wanted to know which schools’ students performed well at meeting (or exceeding) their states’ standards for high school students. So we asked: After taking into account student poverty rates, are students, on average, performing significantly better than might be expected on state tests in reading and math?

Second, we wanted to make sure that these schools that performed well on average did not succeed by focusing on one group of students at the expense of another, particularly the least advantaged students. So we asked: Are these student groups – African American students, Latino students, and economically disadvantaged students – performing at least as well as the state average for these groups?

The schools that were successful at these first two steps received a Bronze medal of distinction. There were 1,106 schools from 41 states that received this distinction.

Lastly, we measured how well a school prepared its students for college, as demonstrated by student participation in and performance on AP tests. The top 100 schools that earned high marks across all three sets of data earned the Gold rating and were ranked 1-100 nationwide. The top school was Thomas Jefferson High School in Alexandria, Va. The remaining 425 schools that met all three criteria were awarded a Silver medal of distinction and were recognized as the best in their respective states.

The Right Educational Fit Makes All the Difference

Rankings should serve as a starting point in determining the best educational fit for your child. This is particularly true if your family is moving to a new area. Rankings also are helpful when a student makes the transition from middle to high school and there’s more than one high school they can choose to attend.

A school heralded as the “gold standard” may not be the best match for a child who is struggling and needs to focus on fundamental skills. There are bronze schools doing groundbreaking and creative work to ensure students are not only proficient, but that they excel. For example, Columbus, Ohio’s Eastmoor Academy, a bronze medal recipient, is a college prep school that focuses on serving African American students in the Columbus community. Another example is Bronze medal winner Dolores Huerta Preparatory High School in Pueblo, Colorado. Its graduates are guaranteed admission to any Pueblo University or College in the state.

At the end of the day, rankings highlight which schools are academic standouts, but parents must do their homework, too. Rankings and Web sites such as SchoolMatters.com can help narrow the list of best options, and should be combined with visiting the school and talking with parents who already have children attending the school before making a final selection.