U.S. News & World Report released its annual list of the nation’s top high schools earlier this month.
As always, Fairfax County was well-represented with six area high schools — Thomas Jefferson (No. 2), Marshall (No.55), McLean (No.85), Langley (No. 98), W.T. Woodson (No. 122), and Madison (No. 129) — ranked among the nation’s top 150. Several others were ranked in the top 250.
The question that remains is what all these numbers mean, and if the methodologies used in these rankings are the best way to measure the success or failure of a particular school.
Should schools be made accountable? Absolutely.
Can officials glean something from standardized tests and participation in Advanced Placement and International Bacclaureate programs? Yes.
Is ranking 21,776 public high schools in 49 states with a one-size-fits-all formula useful? The jury remains out.
U.S. News ranks schools using mainly state proficiency tests and the percentage of seniors taking AP and IB tests. However, because testing standards are different in just about every state, the idea of selecting the top 100 schools in the country is a bit like selecting your state football champion based on solely a team’s average rushing yards.
Also, how fair is it to compare a high school that must take any student who comes through the door with charter schools and magnet schools with highly selective admissions processes?
In an email to school parents this past week, Fairfax High School principal Dave Goldfarb shared his thoughts on the U.S. News rankings, and why they should be taken with a grain or two of salt. It’s worth noting Fairfax was ranked as the 13th-best high school in Virginia and No. 249 in the U.S.
“While it is flattering to have our school viewed among the best high schools in the country, reports based on test scores are a very, very small measure of the student learning that happens every day in our school,” Goldfarb wrote. “Less than half of all our courses have a ‘high-stakes’ examination. However, results on these tests dominate media coverage of schools, and focus the public’s attention on a very small subset of the students’ growth and learning that happens in classrooms. This attention puts too much emphasis on a single assessment, and takes away from the value of the work performed by students and teachers throughout the year. It also devalues other courses, such as the arts, career and technical education courses, health and physical education, and world languages.”
Goldfarb’s views likely are shared by thousands of principals, teachers and parents across Virginia and the U.S.
Even in a rankings-driven culture that demands winners and losers be identified at every turn, this might be one championship all involved consider leaving vacant.