COLUMN: Magazine’s list of best high schools is overrated

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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I know this column will be misunderstood, so let me be clear from the start: Dallas’ School for the Talented and Gifted is a terrific school.

TAG, as it’s known, is the school system’s bright shining star. If I had kids, I’d be happy to send them there.

Great teachers, great students – the whole nine. Don’t interpret anything that follows as a criticism of the school.

But to claim, as Newsweek did recently, that it’s the best high school in America is silly. It stretches the boundaries of reason.

Each year, the magazine issues a new set of its oddly precise rankings. (Ever wondered where the 543rd-best high school in America is? Georgia, apparently.) Schools that rank high celebrate their success. Those that drop curse their misfortune.

This year – for the second year in a row – TAG finished No. 1 overall. And right behind it was Dallas’ Science and Engineering Magnet, which shares a building with TAG. District officials were understandably proud to lay claim to the two best high schools in the country.

But here are five reasons why Newsweek’s list isn’t worth the glossy paper it’s printed on.

First: Newsweek’s rankings are based entirely on one unreliable number.

A school’s spot on the list is determined by dividing the number of Advanced Placement tests it gave last year by the number of graduates it produced.

(Some schools offer International Baccalaureate and Cambridge tests in addition to or instead of AP tests..)

That’s it. One single number.

Notice all the things that don’t count. SAT scores. Scores on state tests like the TAKS. Dropout rates. Poverty rates. None of those matter – just the number of AP tests given.

Also notice that kids don’t actually have to perform well on all those tests. To Newsweek, a kid who gets the highest score counts just as much as one who takes the test on a lark and gets the lowest.

AP tests are a good thing. Kids who take them typically have challenged themselves with a difficult course of study – one that many universities will accept for college credit.

But they’re hardly the best or only way to judge a school’s quality. As others have pointed out, some schools that rank high on Newsweek’s list would be considered mediocre by other standards. Some have been declared “in need of improvement” by the federal government. Others have major dropout problems or huge gaps in how white and minority students perform.

But to Newsweek, only one number matters.

Second: A well-intended incentive program artificially increases the number of AP tests given at TAG and SEM.

In 1995, a nonprofit group called AP Strategies began a program to pay Dallas students and teachers for passing AP tests. Today, at TAG and other Dallas high schools, a passing score in math, English or science is worth $100 to a student and $150 to his or her teacher.

It’s a lovely program, supported by private donors, that has encouraged Dallas kids to take tougher classes and work harder. At the high schools that have been in the program the longest, the number of AP tests given has increased from 379 in 1995 to 3,969 last year.

But it also hopelessly warps any comparison between Dallas high schools and those where similar programs aren’t available. The promise of cold, hard cash, as it turns out, is a pretty strong incentive for kids to take lots of tests.

TAG had 14 AP tests taken per graduating senior in Newsweek’s count. SEM, the second-place school, had 10.7.

But the numbers drop off rapidly from there. Only nine other schools – in the entire country! – had more than six. Two Dallas high schools basically lapped the nation.

So does that mean TAG is really more than twice as good as the 11th-best school in the country? Or does it mean the scoring system is screwy?

Third: Kids at TAG take a lot of AP tests – but they don’t do amazingly well on them.

In 2006, TAG students passed 58.9 percent of the AP tests they took. (That means they got a score of three or above on the test’s one-to-five scale.)

That’s actually a hair below the national average, which was 59.4 percent.

Wouldn’t you expect the best high school in America to have a passing rate higher than the national average?

In some areas, such as computer science, TAG students fare well. But of the 36 students who took the U.S. history test last year, 23 flunked it. Twenty-eight TAG kids took the AP physics test – but only five passed. Eighteen scored a one.

Full statewide numbers for 2006 aren’t available yet, but the stats for 2005 are. That year, TAG had the 65th-highest AP passing rate in Texas. In the Dallas area alone, 15 schools beat TAG.

In fact, in 2005, nearly one in five TAG juniors and seniors didn’t pass a single AP test – despite the sheer number of exams they were signed up for.

Fourth: Newsweek’s methodology is supposed to eliminate schools like TAG from the rankings. But TAG slips through because its SAT scores aren’t high enough.

The man behind the Newsweek rankings, Washington Post reporter Jay Mathews, recognizes that not all schools are created equal. The country’s most elite public high schools – like the famous Bronx Science and Stuyvesant highs in New York City – get to pick their students from a tremendous pool of talent. It’s not fair, really, to compare Bronx Science to, say, Mesquite Poteet. So those schools get knocked out of Newsweek’s list.

“The Challenge Index is designed to honor schools that have done the best job in persuading average students to take college-level courses and tests,” Mr. Mathews writes. “It does not work with schools that have no, or almost no, average students.”

But shouldn’t that mean it doesn’t work with a place like TAG, which gets to choose the brightest kids in Dallas through an application process? The students who walk into class at TAG as freshmen are hardly “average students.” Which part of “talented and gifted” isn’t clear?

In fact, the upper reaches of Newsweek’s list are littered with schools where “average students” are as rare as unicorns. They have names like City Honors High, Academic Magnet, and School for Advanced Studies. Several have no, or next to no, poor kids, like our own Highland Park High, which ranked 15th.

So why doesn’t TAG – a magnet school designed for the brightest of the bright – get tossed from Newsweek’s list? Its SAT scores aren’t high enough. Schools with average reading and math scores of 1300 and above got the boot. TAG’s average in 2005 was 1239.

TAG’s students sit in the list’s sweet spot: bright enough to handle a ton of AP tests, but not so bright that they are removed from consideration.

Fifth: Ranking America’s high schools may be fun, but it’s a pointless exercise meant to sell magazines.

(Not that there’s anything wrong with selling magazines! Or newspapers, for that matter. Buy three copies of this one each morning, I say.)

Ever since U.S. News & World Report built a franchise around its annual ranking of America’s colleges, others have tried to follow suit. I’m sure Newsweek gets a nice bounce in newsstand sales when the list comes out each year.

It might be more honest for Newsweek to just publish the names of a bunch of great schools in alphabetical order. But that wouldn’t be satisfying, would it?

So instead, they provide the fake precision of a 1-to-1,322 ranking. Just as U.S. News needs to create the fiction that Yale, Harvard and Princeton actually swap ranks as the nation’s best university every dozen months.

TAG is a great school doing great things. Its students and teachers should be proud. It probably ranks among the best America has to offer.

But Newsweek’s rankings are awfully close to nonsense.