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Why You Shouldn't Rely Too Much On National Rankings To Gauge High School Quality

Prasit Rodphan
The best way to know whether a high school is top notch or seriously flawed? It takes a visit, says Kit Lively, KERA's education director.

U.S. News & World Report recently released its annual rankings of the best high schools in the country. The Dallas school district’s School for the Talented and Gifted dropped to fourth place – after five straight years as the No. 1 school. A charter school in Scottsdale, Arizona, took the top spot.

KERA’s education director Kit Lively talked with managing editor Eric Aasen about these rankings — and how much weight to give them when considering the quality of a high school.  

Interview Highlights:

On the School for the Talented and Gifted losing the No. 1 spot:

"Being tagged best in the country gives you great bragging rights, but dropping to fourth best isn’t a steep plunge, given that U.S. News includes more than 20,000 public high schools in the rankings. So No. 4 is still pretty good. Dallas ISD had no trouble writing a press release this year. The district’s School for Science and Engineering was ranked No. 9 nationally."

On good schools getting left out of these rankings:

"Everyone can’t be at the top. And, again, there are 20,000 schools in the rankings. What’s important to note, in the U.S. News rankings, magnet and charter schools generally fare very well. They tend to have specialized curriculum and graduation requirements — and magnets can also have stiff entrance cutoffs. The No. 1 school this year – BASIS Scottsdale – is a charter school. No. 2 and 3 were also charter schools from Arizona — and No. 5 and No. 7. "

On different ranking criteria for different publications:

"U.S. News looks at three things – performance on state tests, like the STAAR; graduation rates; and the percentage of kids who take and pass at least one final exam in elite programs like Advanced Placement. They also consider school demographics like poverty and race.

"The Washington Post had the country’s first high school ranking in the ‘90s. The Post looks only at the percentage of kids who take final exams in elite programs like Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate. It doesn’t consider whether they pass the tests. "    

On using these rankings when considering the quality of a school:

"In some ways, rankings give a false sense of precision. Boiling a complex institution like a high school — or college or hospital – down to a single score means you have to ignore a lot of qualities that aren’t included in the ranking but might be important to the school’s success.

"Schools count success in different ways. For a school with a lot of students who are learning English, seeing more students graduate with strong English skills is a great achievement – and it takes a lot of hard work. But that measure doesn’t show up on rankings.

"I don’t think the rankings are useless. The best way to know whether a school is top notch or seriously flawed is to visit. It doesn’t take long watching the teachers and students in action to know whether a school is working. No single number – not a ranking or a score on state tests – can tell you everything important about a school." 

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Eric Aasen is KERA’s managing editor. He helps lead the station's news department, including radio and digital reporters, producers and newscasters. He also oversees, the station’s news website, and manages the station's digital news projects. He reports and writes stories for the website and contributes pieces to KERA radio. He's discussed breaking news live on various public radio programs, including The Takeaway, Here & Now and Texas Standard, as well as radio and TV programs in New Zealand and the United Kingdom.