Today, U.S. News & World Report released their annual “Best High Schools” rankings, and we want to clarify what the rankings do (and do not) mean.
First, congratulations to those Arkansas high schools that made the Best High School list! Below are the Top 10 in Arkansas:
#1: Haas Hall Academy
#2: Bentonville High School
#3: Rogers High School
#4: Greenbrier High School
#5: Lakeside High School
#6: Rogers Heritage High School
#7: Green Forest High School
#8: Arkansas Arts Academy High
#9: Springdale High School
#10: Berryville High School
Here at the OEP, we are big advocates for assessment literacy, which essentially means understanding different types of assessment information, having the skills to determine if the information is dependable, and knowing how to use it productively to support or certify achievement.
The first thing you need to know about the U.S. News rankings is that they are based on state assessment data from the 2013-14 school year, so the ranking is reflecting student performance from nearly 2 years ago. Anyone remember that year? This was the one year that we used the PARCC assessment, the first year students and teachers across the state used computer- based assessments, and the first time Arkansas’ 9th and 10th graders were assessed on English Language Arts.
Even though it was a ‘unique’ year, this shouldn’t impact the rankings US News, which compare the performance of students in each Arkansas high schools to the performance of students in other Arkansas high schools, because all schools were facing the assessment challenges. In addition, it is not a simple ‘direct’ comparison of how the students performed, but includes information about how the students would be EXPECTED to perform given the percentage of students enrolled that are economically disadvantaged.
There are four aspects to the ranking: 1) the performance of students on state assessments in literacy and mathematics; 2) the performance of disadvantaged student subgroups; 3) graduation rate and 4) the degree to which high schools prepare students for college by offering a college-level curriculum.
Schools must pass the first step by performing better than expected based on their student population in order to continue in the ranking process.
STEP 1: Identify High Schools Performing Better than Expected
To determine if schools are performing better than expected, U.S. News created a Performance Index for each high school by examining student performance on state assessments, and compared it to the percentage of students participating in Free/Reduced Lunch Programs (which are an indicator of low socioeconomic status). This model reflects the understanding that students who face economic challenges outside of school are typically less likely to achieve at the same levels at their peers who do not face economic hardships. We are going to skip the details, but you can read more about it here.
The figure below represents Arkansas high schools’ school-level Performance Index scores plotted against the school percentage of students participating in Free/Reduced Lunch Programs. The figure below present the information used in Step 1 of the Best High School rankings. You can see the relationship between Performance and the percentage of students who are identified as economically disadvantaged. The red line represents the ‘typical performance’ of schools in Arkansas given the percentage of students in the school that are disadvantaged. Yellow markers represent schools where students performed BETTER than expected, and light blue markers represent schools where students performed AS expected. Dark green markers indicate schools where students performed BELOW what is typical for schools with the same percentage of economically disadvantaged students.
The yellow dot on the far left side is easily identified as Haas Hall because they are the only high school in the state that reports 0% of students participating in FRLP. The Performance Index for Haas Hall is more than 140, which is 20 points above the expected performance. As you move to the right side of the graph, the percentage of students participating in FRLP increases. At the far right hand side of the graph are dots representing schools with 100% of students participating in FRLP. The highest yellow dot on the right hand side shows a school whose enrollment is entirely low-income, but whose Performance Index is also 20 points higher than expected!
Only schools whose Performance Index is ABOVE the gray performance zone and represented by yellow dots and passed on to the next step. This is the critical step for Arkansas high schools. A majority of Arkansas’ high schools do not pass this step, and are therefore unranked. This year, 100 (35%) of Arkansas high school were performing above expectations and move on to Step 2 of the ranking.
STEP 2: Identify High Schools Performing Better than State Average for Their Least Advantaged Students
For this step, the performance of African American, Hispanic and economically disadvantaged students on the state assessments are compared to state averages. Schools where these disadvantaged students are performing as well or better than state averages are automatically considered bronze-medal high schools and move on to Step 3 of the ranking to determine silver or gold medal.
STEP 3: Ensure Graduates Rates Are Above 68%
This step of the of the U.S. News ranking process is new for 2016 and requires that high schools have graduated at least 68% of students. Arkansas’ graduation rate is 85% overall, so this is an EXTREMELY low bar for Arkansas, and only a couple of high schools fall below this bar.
STEP 4: Identify High Schools That Performed Best in Providing Students with Access to Challenging College-Level Coursework
For this final step, the participation of 12th grade students in AP or IB examinations was used to determine which high schools passed Step 4 to become silver-medal high schools, and also was used to rank high schools across states to distinguish the gold-medal high schools from silver medalists.
So, is the “Best” really the best?
We like the U.S. News rankings because it provides information that can be helpful! We want to know which high schools are performing better than expected, serving their most disadvantaged students and preparing kids for college. We also like being able to compare to other high schools across the country. It is a somewhat clumsy comparison, however, since each state currently uses a different test to measure performance, and we look forward to the day when cross- state comparisons are facilitated by common assessments. We DON’T like that the data used by U.S. News are nearly two years old and hope that stakeholders will keep that in mind as they search for their school on the “Best” list.
The final stage of the rankings is focused on College- Level coursework. Here at OEP, we would like to see them including more indices of career readiness, because not everyone wants to go to college. Just like ‘the best’ colleges, just because it is ‘the best’ doesn’t mean it is the best for your student.
A few notes:
Towards the low and high ends of the economically disadvantaged distribution, however, it can be difficult to predict where a ‘typical’ school should be. For example, there is only one high school in Arkansas with less than 20% economically disadvantaged (Haas Hall), so the ‘prediction’ of how the students should be performing may not be as accurate as it is for the schools in the range of 40-70% economically disadvantaged where the majority of the high schools are identified.
A high school’s low performance may be the result of the entire school system that the students attended BEFORE the high school. However, many of the significantly under-performing schools are small rural high schools that serve grades 7-12.