University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

2022 “Best” High Schools-

In The View from the OEP on April 27, 2022 at 11:30 am
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Yesterday, U.S. News & World Report released their annual “Best High Schools” rankings.  These rankings always make the news but here at the OEP, we want to make sure that you understand what the “best” title is based on. U.S. News changed their methodology, so we want to share what we like (and don’t) about the methodology, and examine what we think is a missing indicator of high school success- whether or not students are enrolling in college after graduation.

First, congratulations to those Arkansas high schools that made the list for 2022! Below are the US News Top 10 for Arkansas (for context, we noted the 2020-21 percentage of students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch provided in MySchoolInfo, which is used as an indicator of student poverty rates):

  1. Haas Hall Academy (6% FRL)
  2. Northwest Arkansas Classical Academy High (5% FRL)
  3. Bentonville High School (15% FRL)
  4. LISA Academy North High School (51% FRL)
  5. Rogers New Tech (61% FRL)
  6. Greenbrier High (34% FRL)
  7. Fayetteville High (33% FRL)
  8. Bentonville West High School (22% FRL)
  9. Bismarck High (47% FRL)
  10. Maumelle Charter High (21% FRL)

What makes these schools the “Best”?

U.S. News uses a methodology that changed in 2019 which includes six indicators to rank the nation’s high schools.  The indicators are combined to give each high school’s overall score between zero and 100 that represents what percentile position a school is in out of the 17,843 ranked schools across the nation. Listed below, along with how much weight each is given in the overall score calculation, the indicators represent advanced course taking/exam passing, performance on state assessments, and graduation rate.

  • Indicator 1: College Readiness (30% of overall score)  The proportion of a school’s 12th graders that took and passed Advanced Placement/International Baccalaureate exams in 2019-20.
  • Indicator 2: State Assessment Proficiency (20% of overall score)  A simple measure of schools’ student performance on state assessments. This measure is a weighted measure of performance, where schools are awarded 1 to 4 points per student depending on their performance on the ACT Aspire math, English Language
  • Indicator 3: State Assessment Performance (20% of overall score)  A measure of how students in a school perform on state assessments compared to how U.S. News predicted a school would score given the demographic characteristics of its students.
  • Indicator 4:  College Curriculum Breadth (10% of overall score) A measure of how many 12th grade students passed multiple AP/IB exams. Earning a qualifying score is weighted three times more than taking.
  • Indicator 5:  Underserved Student Performance (10% of overall score) An evaluation of the difference between how underserved students (black, Hispanic, and low-income) scored on state assessments compared with the average for non-underserved students.
  • Indicator 6:  Graduation Rate (10% of overall score) The proportion of students who entered ninth grade in the 2016-2017 academic year who graduated four years later in 2020.

College Readiness, College Curriculum Breadth, and Graduation Rate are standardized nationally, while state assessment results were standardized within the state. The standardized scores were weighted, summed, and transformed into a percentile.

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3 things we like about the U.S. News rankings:

1. Performance on state exams factors in the racial/economic background of the students served by the school.

Schools serving a lower percentage of students who are historically underserved (defined as Black/African-American students, Hispanic/Latin students, and students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch) typically have higher test scores than schools serving a higher percentage of students from these groups, but the U.S. News ranking takes that into account.

2. Performance of historically underserved populations is considered.

Students who are historically underserved generally score lower on state assessments than white, Asian, and/or economically advantaged students.  Schools where the equity gap between historically underserved and non-underserved groups is smaller than the state average get higher scores.

3. AP passing rates are considered as well as AP participation.

Under Arkansas’ ESSA plan, the number of students taking an AP class is rewarded, but there is no consideration to how well students perform on the AP tests.  This is particularly important because, unlike students in most other states, Arkansas students do not have to pay to take AP tests, so we can consider the passing rates a more reliable measure of how well the AP content is being taught.

thumbs down3 things we don’t like about the rankings:

1. The data are OLD

The data used by U.S. News for the 2022 rankings are from the 2018-19 school year – nearly two years old and before the pandemic.  We hope that stakeholders will keep that in mind as they search for their school on the “Best” list.

2. Focus is just on College

Only ‘college ready’ indicators are considered.  We would like to see U.S. News including more indices of career readiness, because not everyone wants to go to college and the ‘best’ high schools should meet the learning goals of all of their students.

3. Focus is on Proficiency, not Growth

Here at OEP, we are strong proponents of student-level growth models.  We understand that it is impossible to compare this type of student growth across states because each state uses a different assessment, but we feel it is important to point out that even though they consider the demographics of the students served by the school, Arkansas’ growth model provides better information about how well students are GROWING academically from year to year.

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Does College-Ready Mean College Going?

With the focus that these rankings place on college-readiness, here at the OEP we felt like a big piece of the success of these schools was not included in the ranking.  We wondered,  “Are students from these ‘Best’ high schools actually going to college?”.

ADE releases the College Going rates for schools through the annual state report card, so we looked up the 2020-21 rates for the top 10 U.S. News schools. As presented in Table 1, between 25% and 76% of graduates from these high schools went on to enroll in college.

Table 1. College Going Rates for top 10 U.S. News High Schools, all students and economically disadvantaged students, 2020-21

SchoolCollege-Going Rate – All Students College-Going Rate – FRL Students
Haas Hall54Not Applicable
NWA Classical4333
LISA North5252
Rogers New Tech3630
Bentonville West4030

Does this seem weird? Only 54% of students from Haas Hall, the “best” high school in Arkansas, went on to college?  Well, the thing about the college going rates reported by ADE is that it only includes students going to college IN ARKANSAS.  Each year, about 5-6% of Arkansas graduates attend schools out of state.  Unfortunately, we don’t have national data including Arkansas students who attend college out of state.

We also want to point out that there are some high schools with much higher college-going rates: Emerson High had the highest rate with 81% of students going on to college, while Oden and Bearden followed with 71% and 70%, respectively. These schools don’t make the top 10 list, however, in part because they are so small that the scores for College Readiness and College Breadth were not calculated because fewer than 10 students were administered at least one AP assessment.

The schools identified as the “Best” in Arkansas in 2022 demonstrate high student achievement and lots of opportunities for college- level work. Students in those advanced classes are successful to the AP/ IB exams, and underrepresented populations seem to be performing better than expected. But the methodology used by U.S. News doesn’t tell us if students are going to college after high school, which is, in our opinion, and overlooked measure of a “Best” high school. Other indicators, such as industry certifications earned, completion of a coherent Career and Technical Education sequence, and employment after high school graduation are also indicators of a high school that is doing a great job to prepare students for their future.

OEP is working to gather information on these other indicators of how well our high schools are preparing students for success after high school. Stay tuned!

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