A Failing Grade?

A Failing Grade?
Several of Newsweek’s ‘best’ high schools are not doing enough for their minority students, report says.

By Ibram Rogers

Many of the high schools on Newsweek’s popular annual lists of the nation’s Top 100 schools have glaring achievement gaps between Whites and minorities, according to a new report.

Education Sector, an independent, nonpartisan education think tank, collected student performance data for the 100 schools in Newsweek’s 2005 “America’s 100 Best High Schools” issue. Its report — “Why Newsweek’s List of America’s 100 Best High Schools Doesn’t Make the Grade” — suggests that the formula the magazine uses to compile its list is too narrow.

“While some schools on Newsweek’s list may be among the best in the nation, a closer look at the data reveals that many do not meet a reasonable definition of a good high school,” the report says. “Indeed, some of the schools on the list have such significant achievement gaps that they should be on a list of schools needing improvement rather than one for best schools.

“So many of the schools on the list have such significant gaps in achievement among their student subgroups that it calls into question that entire Newsweek enterprise.”

Sara Mead, co-author of the report and a senior policy analyst for Education Sector, says the formula that Newsweek uses for the rankings doesn’t take into account how schools serve students from different racial and income groups.

“We don’t think that a school that only serves some population well should be on a list with the best schools in the country,”
she says.

Since its inception in 1998, Newsweek’s list of the Top 100 American high schools has grown in popularity. The formula — called the Challenge Index — is simple: divide the number of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate tests taken by students at a high school by the number of its graduating seniors.

Eastside High School in Gainesville, Fla., ranked third in Newsweek’s 2005 list even though only 12 percent of the school’s Black students read at grade level in 2004. And the magazine ranked Hillsborough High School in Tampa, Fla., as the nation’s 10th best high school despite the fact that a mere 17 percent of its Black students and 26 percent of its Hispanic students read at their grade level in 2004.

According to the study, several of the high schools also recorded sizeable gaps in test scores between racial groups. Twenty-seven schools had a Hispanic-White achievement gap in reading. Twenty-six schools had disparities of at least 20 percentage points
in math.

The average Black student graduation rate for the 26 schools that reported such figures was 71 percent. White graduation rates, meanwhile, were on average 15 percent higher.

Jay Mathews, the creator of Newsweek’s formula, says the narrowness of the Challenge Index is one of its strengths.

“Its narrowness and simplicity mean that readers can easily see what I am doing and judge for themselves if it makes sense to them,” says Mathews, an education reporter for the Washington Post. “Since the rating involves two easily obtainable numbers, they can do the arithmetic themselves for their own schools and see how they compare to those on the list.”

He says that if Newsweek used more sophisticated measures like the adequate yearly progress requirements in No Child Left Behind, it would “leave the reader lost in a statistical jungle, as he or she is with the U.S. News & World Report’s college list.”

Mead, however, disagrees with Mathews’ assessment. “We want things to be simple; we want them to be easy to understand, but the world isn’t that simple,” she says. “We know that there are a lot of inequities in public education, and when we ignore that and just look at overall numbers, we are allowing historically under-served groups of kids, low-income and minority kids, to fall through the cracks. We don’t think it’s appropriate to call a school one of the best schools in the country if it is not serving those groups of kids well. That is our biggest concern.”

Nevertheless, Mathews says his formula allows inner city schools that may have high dropout rates a chance to compete if they are challenging their most erudite students. A third of the students at 17 schools on the list qualify for free and reduced-priced lunch, he says.

“The Newsweek list is designed to distinguish between inner city schools and other low-income schools that do not challenge even their best students,” he says. “This is a great leap forward from the usual neighborhood back fence view that if a high school has lots of low-income kids, then it is by definition a bad school.”



© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com