Flawed study of high schools misses larger issues

I started this post about a month back when a new Newsweek study claimed to have ranked the 1000 (or so) best high schools in the U.S. A quick review of the list piqued my curiosity as a majority of the schools were in the south and none of the top 100 were in Minnesota or Wisconsin, two states renowned for their education systems.
There are 27,468 high schools in the U.S. Only 7% of the top 100 were in what I consider the Midwest, with another 10% in the West, 31% in the East, and a whopping 51% in the South. When you look at the full list the picture gets a little less skewed but still suspicious with the Midwest containing 11%, 26% in the West, 28% in the East, and 34% in the South. In fact, only 2.7% of the top 1068 high schools were found in Minnesota or Wisconsin.
It turns out that the study employed some rather dubious metrics based upon a ratio devised by Jay Mathews that took into account the number of Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate tests taken by all students at a school in 2004 and then divided by the number of graduating seniors for each school. This measure doesn’t even come close to helping determine the quality of a High School. In fact, the only thing it suggests is which schools stress AP and IB testing.


A couple better determinations of how well high schools are doing might be the graduation rate of each school, the “college readiness” of each of those graduates, and the actual acceptance of those grads to colleges. Such a study was conducted by the Center for Civic Innovation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and a report was prepared last year titled: Public High School Graduation and College-Readiness Rates: 1991-2002 [PDF] [HTML].
In this study Minnesota ranks among the highest in graduation rates among high schools with 84% of students earning their diploma with 33% reporting a readiness for college. Wisconsin and Iowa each had a rate of 85% (with 34% readiness), North Dakota was 85% (with 33% readiness), and Nebraska had 83% (33% readiness), all the highest in the U.S.
Now compare this to some of the lowest figures in the country containing al the lowest performing schools: South Carolina (53% graduating, 29% readiness), Georgia (56% graduating, 31% readiness), Tennessee (57% graduating, 31% readiness), Alabama (58% graduating, 32% readiness), Florida (59% graduating, 33% readiness)- all in the South.
The point of this post, however, was never to say that Minnesota (or Midwest) high school students are better or smarter than southern students but simply to show that a study can present a very different conclusion than what is true (or even intended). In preparing for this post I uncovered either by accident or by being more aware some much more interesting things about high schools in the U.S., namely that more than 30% of high school students drop out (close to 50% of some demographic groups) and how even the students staying in are learning less and less equipped than ever to “be productive in society”.
Select resources from this post:
Raw high school ranking data (CSV format)
Public High School Graduation and College-Readiness Rates: 1991-2002 (PDF) (HTML)
Original Newsweek Article

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