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What's with the new U.S. News high school list?

I occasionally communicate with Montgomery County school superintendent Jerry D. Weast, but usually it is one of his people who call to set up the appointment. Yesterday he was so bothered about something he called himself. It wasn't me who upset him, but my friends and fellow members in good standing of the School Ranking Scoundrels club, the editors of U.S. News & World Report.
They just came out with their latest list of America's Best High Schools. Weast was astonished to see that none of the three Montgomery County schools that had been on the U.S. News top 100 list in the past were mentioned this time. In fact there were no Maryland, Virginia or D.C. schools on the list at all, except for Langley, number 47, and the Thomas Jefferson High School of Science and Technology in Fairfax County which was, as usual, number one in the country.

Weast wanted me to find out from U.S. News why this was. I told him I thought it was better if he contacted the magazine himself, and gave him the email address of the U.S. News director of data research, Robert Morse, whose work for the last several decades, beginning with the magazine's America's Best Colleges list, I highly admire.

I am uncomfortable saying more about this, because of my personal involvement in rating high schools. I invented and still produce each year Newsweek's America's Top High Schools list. That list started a decade before the U.S. News list, and rates schools in a somewhat different way, although many schools appear on both lists. I exclude very selective schools like Jefferson from my list, but include about 70 percent of Washington area schools, including every school in Montgomery County, based on their students' participation rates in college level exams like Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate.

Thus anything I say about the U.S. News list may be misinterpreted. Anything negative I say will be blamed on the fact that we are competitors. Anything positive will be attributed to the fact that I welcomed the U.S. News list, and that every year it comes out the number of online hits on the Newsweek list soars, probably because people want to compare the ratings their schools got on both lists or because they are confused as to which list has just come out. My most recent national list appeared in June. The next is scheduled to appear about that same time next year. My latest rankings of all the Washington area high schools will appear next month in the Post.

I can, however, quote a local expert on both lists who shared with me today his ideas as to why U.S. News might have downgraded Montgomery County. He is Sid Groeneman, a survey consultant who worked on the U.S. News college list and did a great piece on both the Newsweek and U.S. News high school lists for Bethesda magazine earlier this year.

At first Groeneman said "my guess is that Montgomery Co. schools are conspicuously missing from the Top 100 (Gold Medal list) because none of the MD schools provide Disadvantaged Student data - a requirement for Gold Medal Status - must be in the top half in the state on minority and low-income student performance to qualify. Why MD schools didn't provide that data I don't know." Groeneman saw that eight other states also did not provide this data.

Then, after thinking about it some more, Groeneman said: "the reason Mont Co schools were left off the Top 100 list this time might be U.S News's Stage 1 hurdle: Must score > 1 standard deviation above their expected score on state assessment tests GIVEN THEIR POVERTY-ADJUSTED PERFORMANCE. Why Whitman, Wooten and Churchill fell down this year on that measure is a puzzle. Hopefully, Bob Morse will provide a definitive reason for the ranking - if not an explanation for the decline the schools' performance on that measure. But my original thought - why MD's schools did not provide/collect disadvantaged students' scores (U.S. News's Stage 2 hurdle) - also remains a mystery."

Groeneman has asked Morse for more information. I will post here anything Morse says in reply. Weast has sent out a memo complaining that the U.S. News method "relies too heavily on Maryland state assessments."

U.S. News recognizes the worth of several Montgomery County and other local schools in another part of their list. I like these rankings because they stimulate good conversations on my favorite topic, how to make high schools better. I will have more to say about that when my Challenge Index ratings of our local schools come out Jan. 18.


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By Jay Mathews  | December 11, 2009; 12:23 PM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  Newsweek high school list, Robert Morse, Sid Groeneman, U.S. News high school list, school ranking  
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Comments

"Thomas Jefferson High was not the only school in the area to do well. Langley High School of Fairfax County, which only takes students from the surrounding neighborhood, ranked 47th."

In other words, one does not test to get into Langley. Congrats to Langley students and their new principal.

Posted by: ShirleyBridges | December 11, 2009 2:05 PM | Report abuse

The list needs to be titled:
America's Best PULIC High Schools

I was 3/4 of the way thru the list until I noticed no private or Catholic high schools.

Posted by: edlharris | December 11, 2009 4:02 PM | Report abuse

good catch Shirley. I just fixed it, and ed is right about this being just public schools. We should make that clearer. The privates sadly are reluctant to release their data.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 11, 2009 5:46 PM | Report abuse

You know Jay, there's a conclusion to be drawn from your membership in the School Ranking Scoundrels club that's implicit in the existence of the sentiment that chosen to, more or less, humorously describe as the School Ranking Scoundrels club: folks supportive of and dependent on the extant public education system don't like being measured, ranked, gauged, tested or in any other way held accountable.

It's an understandable preference since for the duration of the existence of the public education system accountability's been a shaky proposition, resisted by the professionals, only ineffectively pursued by parents and taxpayers with elective officials caught in the middle siding, on the evidence, largely with the hired help.

That resistance to accountability has all sorts of ramifications not the least of which being why teaching garners so little respect with the public education system. After all, if it doesn't matter to the principal or the school board how good a high school is at teaching kids why should it matter how good the teachers are at teaching kids?

Posted by: allenm1 | December 12, 2009 6:17 AM | Report abuse

Of the 2000 students that attend Langley High School, less than 100 are disadvantaged. Most of the students are white and very privileged. There are very few African-American or Hispanic students. This school is not representative, in any way, of what a typical high school in Fairfax County looks like.

Posted by: sammann | December 13, 2009 11:50 PM | Report abuse

It is true, Langley and TJ do not have many financially disadvantaged students. However, in listening to parents of students with serious or chronic illness, Langley wins with kindness and solutions.

At TJ, except for one student in a 20 year period (according to the principal and staff), if you miss too many days or must leave 9th grade to fight for your life, TJ, "removes you from the database". In other words, you are kicked out of TJ....forever. This actually is not very helpful to a student who is fighting for their life. In fact, school and friends are an important link and "hope" to hang on to. Given the July 2009 OCR decision regarding TJ, will TJHSST change? Someone should find out.

Posted by: ShirleyBridges | December 14, 2009 2:45 PM | Report abuse

When MCPS had schools in the top 100 in 2007 and 2008, Mr. Weast didn't complain about the methodology. Now that MCPS is in decline (check out the graduation rate statistics), all of a sudden the problem is how they compute the top 100?
How about if MCPS starts focusing more on the instructional program than the public relations and publicity? How much did the Department of Communications spend on the full-color posterboard pie-charts for last week's press conference?

Posted by: ontarget1 | December 14, 2009 5:08 PM | Report abuse

ShirleyBridges,

Langley is not on this list because of its ability to meet the needs of children with serious of chronic illnesses. It is on the list because it has very, very few students that come from backgrounds that make it difficult for them to achieve academic success. Many high schools in Fairfax County have significant portions of their students coming from low income households or have parents with little education. These are great barriers to academic success. If Langley had 30%+ or more of its students coming from backgrounds such as these, it would not appear on the U.S. News & World Report list.

Posted by: sammann | December 14, 2009 6:00 PM | Report abuse

Dear Sammann,

I didn't mean to disagree with you. You might be interested in the local Connection article regarding Fairfax County considering closing an alternative high school, Pimmit Hills High School. (Connection December 16-22). Best wishes.......

Posted by: ShirleyBridges | December 16, 2009 10:13 PM | Report abuse

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