Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, has written a brilliant critique of the rankings of America’s high schools. She looks specifically at Jay Mathews’ list of “America’s Most Challenging High Schools,” but her critique applies equally to U.S. News & World Report’s ranking of “America’s Best High Schools.”
As she points out, charter advocates jumped for joy when they learned that the lists were dominated by charter schools, and they urged the nation to learn from the success of these schools.
Burris points out that the highest ranking school on Jay Mathews list is BASIS Phoenix (the U.S. News & World Report had BASIS charters as numbers 1, 2, and 3 on its lists, albeit not the one in Phoenix). And consider what the lessons might be:
The BASIS Phoenix graduating class of 2016 had 24 students — fewer than the average New York City kindergarten class. It began four years earlier with 43 ninth-graders. The drop from 43 to 24 represents an attrition rate of 44 percent. Jay’s list says that the school’s enrollment is 757 students, but that is deceiving because BASIS Phoenix is both a middle and high school. The entire high school population (which is what the list is about) in 2016 was only 199.
BASIS Phoenix does not have a free or reduced-price lunch program, and it does not provide transportation. It asks its parents for a $1,500 donation per child each year, along with hefty fees to participate in sports and extracurricular activities. In 2016, the school had so few students with disabilities, the state could not list the number without violating privacy — not even to give a total for the entire school. Thirty-three percent of its students were Asian American and 57 percent were white. In Maricopa County, Arizona, where the school is located, 3 percent of the students are Asian American, and 41 percent are white. The majority of Maricopa County students are Latino, and 47 percent receive free or reduced-priced lunch.
Burris points out that Jay Mathews uses the senior class as the denominator, not those who started in the high school, and this rewards high attrition rates:
Because Jay’s formula uses the senior class enrollment as the denominator to create the Challenge Index, schools with high attrition rates that give AP exams to underclassmen are rewarded. This results in BASIS Phoenix’s absurdly high Challenge Index of 26.250. If you used the original number of students who entered the high school as the denominator, the Index would drop to 14.65. Losing kids who can’t keep up has it rewards.
The number 2 school on Jay’s list had 11 graduates, out of 17 that started. One of the best high schools in America?
Jay gives credit to schools where students take AP classes, whether or not they pass them. Some of the schools on the list offer incredible numbers of AP classes. His list has encouraged this practice.
What, then, are the lessons public schools should learn from the “top schools?”
Should our neighborhood schools follow the lead of the top charters and cater to the strivers and the gifted so those who cannot complete 11 AP courses, or pass an AP course, are forced to move out?
Should ranking lists call high schools “the best” when their program keeps teenagers with Down syndrome and serious learning disabilities out, or when they shed 10 percent or more of their students who cannot keep pace? Should we then have “default” public high schools where the students who can’t keep up are segregated from more academically able peers? If we continue down the path of unfettered choice with vouchers and boutique charters, that will surely be the outcome.
If, however, we believe that the good school equitably serves all children, there must be a balance between reasonable challenge and inclusivity. Asking all students, with the exception of students with the most challenging disabilities, to take an IB or AP course or two before graduation is an idea I support.
However, when we establish schools that create exclusivity by design, or by their unreasonably difficult graduation requirements, we are not furthering equity. And that results in lists more appropriate for Ripley’s Believe it or Not, than “best schools” lists.
In the current atmosphere, the one created by NCLB and Race to the Top, schools are congratulated when their scores and graduation rates are high even though their attrition rates are also high. Is the best high school the ones that set standards so high that a large number of students are pushed out? Is the best high school the one that is most selective? Or is the best high school the one that aims to educate all kinds of students and does a good job of preparing all of them for citizenship, for life, and for whatever path they choose after high school?
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