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America's Best High Schools (Says Who?)

Friday, May 10, 2013 -- Kristin Flynn

U.S. News and World Reports just released its annual list of the best high schools in the United States. The magazine evaluated more than 21,000 public high schools in 49 states and the District of Columbia. Schools were awarded gold, silver, or bronze medals based on state proficiency standards and how well they prepare students for college.

Of course, any kind of ranking begs the question – just how is “best” determined? What makes one outstanding school a point or two higher than another? And is “best” an absolute or at least partly relative determination?

Methodology is a particularly compelling issue since the rankings are by their nature competitive, and that education in general is becoming increasingly competitive. Charter schools; traditional schools; online learning; blended learning; flipped classrooms; open enrollment – not only how do you attract (and keep) students, but how do you produce the best possible students? Because the fact is, you are in competition with other schools and other forms of education.

U.S. News, in conjunction with the American Institutes for Research, used a three-step approach to evaluating high schools. According to the magazine, “The first two steps ensured that the schools serve all of their students well, using performance on state proficiency tests as the benchmarks. For those schools that made it past the first two steps, a third step assessed the degree to which schools prepare students for college-level work.” Those steps included:

• Step 1: The first step determined whether each school's students were performing better than statistically expected for the average student in the state. We started by looking at reading and math results for all students on each state's high school proficiency tests.

We then factored in the percentage of economically disadvantaged students (who tend to score lower) enrolled at the school to identify the schools that were performing better than statistical expectations.

• Step 2: For those schools that made it past this first step, the second step determined whether the school's least-advantaged students (black, Hispanic and low-income) were performing better than average for similar students in the state.

We compared each school's math and reading proficiency rates for disadvantaged students with the statewide results for these student groups and then selected schools that were performing better than this state average.

• Step 3: Schools that made it through the first two steps became eligible to be judged nationally on the final step – college-readiness performance – using Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate test data as the benchmarks for success.

U.S. News has a history of commitment to education and to providing useful tools and resources for educators and parents. We applaud their efforts to identify and celebrate outstanding schools. At the same time, we'd like to hear from you. What criteria would you use? Is there something in the U.S. News methodology that might skew the results? What are the objectives you set for yourself and for your school that determine success in your eyes?