If anyone used these rankings to make a decision, Newsweek and Jay Mathews should be sued for malpractice.
People are obsessed with education rankings. Rankings drive colleges’ admissions decisions and students’ application decisions. Parents and students will often admit that they find rankings “silly” or “artificial,” and just a few minutes later confess that they don’t want to apply to Cornell because of its ranking. And based on the massive advertising revenue from college ranking special editions of magazines, some have resorted to producing even more ranking editions. Of these magazines, none seemed as remarkably idiotic as Newsweek’s high school rankings. Even more remarkable was the involvement of Jay Mathews, Washington Post educational “expert,” in the publication of this frivolous enterprise. Jay also edits college ranking editions and has written many education books (mostly about improving education). So we had Newsweek, a well-regarded national magazine, and Jay Mathews, a well-regarded education expert, and together they concocted one of the most ridiculous rankings imaginable. If anyone used these rankings to make a decision, Newsweek and Mathews could be sued for malpractice.
Jay Mathews devised a ranking ratio called the “Challenge Index” that is computed by taking the number of Advance Placement and/or International Baccalaureate tests taken by all students at a school divided by the number of graduating seniors. This ratio produces absurd results that reward some of the most undeserving schools, one of which is Hillsborough High School (Tampa, Fla.). In 2006, Newsweek ranked Hillsborough High School 21st in the nation. That’s 21st best, not 21st most likely to produce a Jesse Pinkman. Newsweek stated that “Public schools are ranked according to a ratio devised by Jay Mathews,” which purportedly indicates a “school’s efforts to get students to excel.” Schools on Newsweek’s “Head of the Class” list are “great” according to the title of the article, and “help regular kids succeed.” This was Hillsborough High School in 2006.
Newsweek and Mathews thus asserted that Hillsborough High School was the 21st best public high school in the country. Hillsborough High School is in Tampa, FL, and is one of the 23 high schools in Tampa’s school district. (School districts in Florida are divided by countries, not cities, so all of Tampa’s schools are in the Hillsborough County school district). Only three other Florida schools ranked above it, thus making Hillsborough High School the 4th best school in all of Florida in 2006. Yet if you were to run this proposition past parents living in Tampa, they would be either horrified by the insult or amused by your ignorance. When asked to rank Hillsborough High School out of the 23 Tampa area public high schools, one school district official said, “probably last, maybe second to last.” Hillsborough was the first Tampa high school to have security cameras installed. It has above-average drug and crime problems and an above-average gang presence. Students in Hillsborough’s regular academic courses (neither honors, advanced nor IB) scored significantly below average on standardized tests. According to the School District of Hillsborough Country Division of Information, Hillsborough High students took the SAT 221 times in 2006, and the numbers suggest that the vast majority of the test-takers were the IB students. The majority of the non-IB students at Hillsborough High weren’t even taking the SAT.
In 2006, a small number of students were in the International Baccalaureate (IB) program at Hillsborough High, most of Hillsborough’s “regular” students are incredible underachievers, almost none of whom actually attend college. The majority of AP and IB students are bused in from the suburbs in the hopes to improve Hillsborough High’s low test scores, abysmal graduate rates, and overall prestige. In essence, busing in the smart, motivated students is a school board trick to gild a failing high school with a thin coat of success. And it appears that the trick worked on the naive Jay Mathews.
Even the State of Florida’s own objective assessments ranked Hillsborough near the bottom of public schools. All students in Florida public school take a standardized test called the FCAT, which assesses basic reading and math proficiency. The State uses FCAT scores to measure improvement, and the Federal government uses FCAT scores to determine whether schools are meeting No Child Left Behind standards. In 2006, when Hillsborough High School was ranked 21st in the nation, the school had never met the basic national reading and math standards set by No Child Left Behind. Never.
Perhaps more shocking is that Hillsborough High School had been given a D grade by the state for all three school years (2004-06) leading up to its illustrious ranking. The state uses a much easier assessment than the national No Child assessment. The state gives out high grades if a school shows some improvement, even if the students have little or no reading and math proficiency. (So the students may not really be able to read, but the state could grade a school highly if the students’ lack of reading skills is not as bad as the previous year.) Even given these lenient standards, Hillsborough was given the lowest passing grade. None of the other 22 high schools in the same district ranked lower, and 21 of the area high schools rank considerably higher. So even by the State of Florida’s lenient grading system, Hillsborough was tied for 22nd best high school in Tampa (FYI Tampa is smaller than the state, which is smaller than the country).
When a student who attended Sickles High School, which earned a state grade of A that year, was asked about switching to “Hillsborough High School, the 21st best high school in the country,” he asked, “Do I need to bring my own gun or does the school provide it?” It would be difficult to get the gun into the school, since all Hillsborough students had to pass through metal detectors. And even if you did get the gun in, the school is crawling with officers throughout the school day.
And when one factors in private schools, the idea of attending Hillsborough High School seems even more ridiculous. A Tampa parent commented, “Anyone with any money avoids the public school system entirely. There are several good private schools and some of them aren’t very expensive.” And it would be unlikely that anyone would willingly live in Hillsborough High School’s district boundaries: the local neighborhood is poor and dangerous. Hillsborough High School is one of Tampa’s “inner-city” schools. The students in the nice neighborhoods attend Plant or Gaither or private schools such as Tampa Prep and Berkeley.
\So how did Hillsborough High School get ranked 21st in the country when, according to all State and Federal assessments, it didn’t even rank 21st in Tampa? How did a school get ranked 21st that draws from inner-city neighborhoods, which anyone with the resources would avoid? How did Jay Mathews conclude that Hillsborough was the 21st best school in the nation in 2006 when neither the state nor federal government ranked Hillsborough as the 21st best high school in its district?
The essence of the problem is that Newsweek and Jay Mathews knew almost nothing about the high schools they rank. The rankings were produced by an ill-conceived formula whose sole purpose is to create a list in order to sell magazines. The rankings business is tremendously profitable, and the idea that a school such as Hillsborough High could be labeled “great” simply lays bare the financial motivation that drives such rankings.
Newsweek’s and Mathews’ credibility drives these rankings: you assume they know something you don’t, and you assume that they have valuable information that they’ve vetted and fact-checked. But after considering the example of Hillsborough High School, one must wonder why anyone thought Newsweek and Mathews should be trusted. What makes a high school or college “good” is often far more subjective and qualitative than rankings allow. Colleges must be visited. Students and recent graduates should be consulted. Advice from a good college counselor can be very valuable. The example of Hillsborough High shows that rankings often aren’t even a very good starting point and can often disguise as much information as they purport to reveal.
So now it’s eight years after Hillsborough High School’s ranking as the 21st best school in the nation. Where is it in 2014?
In the Washington Post, Jay Mathews currently ranks Hillsborough as 30th in the state and 124th nationally, nowhere near its previous ranking, but still not bad. Newsweek, owned by the Washington Post in 2006, pretty much died, was resurrected, died again, then sold (again). Barry Diller called buying Newsweek “a fool’s errand.” Perhaps he was referring to Jay Matthew’s “Challenge Index.” Perhaps.
But U.S. News, not to be outdone ranking anything (is top ten molds next?), also ranks high schools. U.S. News recently ranked 2,290 high schools nationally and awarded “medals” to 4,805 high schools (fake internet gold/silver/bronze medals). So where is our Newsweek-Jay Mathews top ranked Hillsborough High School? According to U.S. News: nowhere. Not ranked. No medal. Nada. A total of 777 Florida schools – and no Hillsborough High School rank or medal. 4,805 high schools nationally, and nothing for Hillsborough High School. I guess U.S. News doesn’t award The Grand Aluminum Trophy.
In 2012, Mathew’s wrote, “High school rankings by U.S. News & World Report and Newsweek have appeared in the past few years that adopted a similar methodology. Sadly, in my view, they have mucked it up by adding test-score measures that say more about a school’s average family income than its efforts to raise the level of instruction for average students.”
“Mucked it up” must be ed-speak for ranking schools based on an incredibly insipid, small-minded, narrow metric upon which a person of great ignorance has, rather incredibly, erected an entire career. Jay Mathews’s only credible defense is that he knows absolute Kelvin about the high schools about which he writes. Ignorance is bliss and employable (Wait, Newsweek sold for $1 and Washington Post was sold for a song? Couldn’t have been all the quality journalism).
Recap: in 2006, Jay Mathews & Newsweek ranked Hillsborough 21st best in the nation and currently rank it 124th best. Currently, U.S. News ranks/medals almost 5,000 schools nationally, and Hillsborough isn’t even on the list. How can two assessments of the same school come to such different conclusions? Who’s right? Jay Mathews? U.S. News? Neither? We’re going to tackle that subject in the upcoming weeks like Pearson on a pseudo-science that sells.
Next high school report: More rankings fun! We explore rankings and produce some equally unreliable but more entertaining rankings of our own!