Ennui and the U.S. News high school rankings


I feel my life’s become like a Chekov play: It’s dark when I drive to work, dark when I drive home, the winter wind chills me to the quick and marrow. Unseen stress and pressure hide just below the surface like an insistent undertow. 

It is in this situation that I try to muster up some interest in the U.S. News and World Report’s ranking of America’s top high schools. It’s a subject worthy of at least a mention in this blog, but the more I try to write, the less I care about the topic. I am less filled with interest and more with ennui.

Not only don’t I care, but the results are bogus.

Here’s the deal: For the third year in a row, the national magazine has gathered information about America’s high schools and ranked them. The top 100 get gold medals, the next 461 get silver medals, then 1,189 receive bronze medals and an additional 37 receive honorable mention. As has been the case in the past, Minnesota had no gold medal winners. This year, the state had 11 silver medal winners and 27 bronze medal winners.

It is at this point that we can rightfully lather up some indignation. “Wha?” we might say. “No gold medal schools? This is Minnesota! How could this happen to us?!” It would, in the parlance of the military, be a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment.

Here’s how they determined which schools were at the top of the nation. (And let’s not kid ourselves here: I’m copying this from the web site and cutting it to fit this blog entry.) They looked at 21,786 public high schools in 48 states plus the District of Columbia that had at least 15 students in 12th grade. Nebraska and Oklahoma did not provide full data and high schools there were eliminated from the exercise. They first determined whether students were performing better than statistically expected for the average student in the state by looking at reading and math results on the state’s standardized test. Then they factored in the percentage of economically disadvantaged students, who tend to score lower, to identify the schools that were performing better than statistical expectations. Then they determined whether the school’s minority and poor students were performing better than average for similar students in the state. If schools made it to this level, they were then judged on college-readiness performance using Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate test data, depending on which program was largest at the school.

Minnesota ranked 31st in the nation in the number of gold or silver medal winners. The magazine said Minnesota has 604 high schools but only 155 qualified for analysis using the process above.

Here is how Minnesota schools scored.

First of all, the results are bogus because state standardized tests are different between the states. The test for Virginia is different than the test for Minnesota which is different than the test for Texas and so on. Therefore, basing the results on state tests is a flawed formula.

I have my doubts as to the effectiveness of the state’s standardized test to measure student progress. It’s a high-stakes test with the full weight of No Child Left Behind on it, so teacher and student preparation is skewed. Plus, Minnesota embeds the GRAD test into the test, so that’s additional pressure on students to perform. Therefore, if you have doubts about the test’s ability to measure student achievement, then you have doubts about the U.S. News and World Report’s entire ranking system.

See what I mean? It’s hard to get too worked up over the information. But it’s worthy of some notice, I guess. It’s 1 p.m., so that means it’ll be dark soon and I have to drive through the inky, frigid darkness to my stone shack where my spawn roll on the floor bawling in the reek. Well, maybe they don’t bawl on the floor, and we keep a lid on the reek, and my house isn’t made of stone. But it will be dark soon, I can feel it in my bones.