Wednesday, May 15, 2013

School rankings called into question

Critics claim Newsweek high school listings are misleading

Express Staff Writer

Newsweek has listed Wood River High School in Hailey as No. 865 in the top 2,000 high schools in the nation.
Express photo by Roland Lane

    A Blaine County School District announcement last week regarding national high school rankings as determined by Newsweek is being criticized by some district patrons, who claim the rankings are misleading and possibly even a “marketing scam.”
    In the 2013 America’s Best High Schools rankings, released on May 6 on the Newsweek/The Daily Beast website, Newsweek claims that it selected and ranked the 2,000 best high schools in the United States. Wood River High School ranked 865 and the high school at Carey School was ranked 1,001.
    The district announcement regarding the rankings came as a news release issued on May 7. The district also announced the rankings in its BCSD Weekly Update issued on Monday, a situation that further angered critics of the Newsweek rankings.
    “Let’s be honest, this press release is completely misleading,” Diane Barker, a Hailey certified public accountant, wrote in an email to the Idaho Mountain Express. “The Newsweek rankings are done with a small self-selected group of schools who self-report their numbers. It is not a ranking of the top 2,000 high schools in the nation. If we are not honest about the academic rankings of our schools, how will we ever get better?”
    Barker and other critics claimed that high school rankings released in April by U.S. News and World Report are more accurate than the Newsweek rankings because U.S. News studied 21,000 high schools in the United States and procured its own data regarding how schools were performing. U.S. News awarded gold, silver or bronze medals to high schools determined to be performing the best, including 46 in Idaho. Neither Wood River High School nor Carey School received an award from U.S. News.
    The School District announcement regarding the Newsweek rankings made no mention of the U.S. News determinations, but quotes district Superintendent Lonnie Barber as saying: “We are proud of our schools. We have great teachers and we have great students and families, and we are excited to be part of the list of best high schools.”
    The controversy even found its way into a school board candidates’ forum hosted Monday night at the Community Campus by the Blaine County Education Foundation. The issue came up on a question raised by Hailey resident Elizabeth Schwerdtle, who claimed that the Newsweek rankings were misleading and alleged the Newsweek ranking system was a “marketing scam.”
    “It turned out to be a scam that was used for marketing banners, plaques and logos,” Schwerdtle said.
    Kathy Baker, a candidate for the school board Zone 2 seat, agreed with Schwerdtle, calling the Newsweek rankings “deceptive.” She noted that Newsweek analyzed data provided by only 2,500 schools and awarded rankings to 2,000 of them.
    “If we misrepresent data like that, then we’re not going to have public trust,” Baker said. “You have to be honest with the people and put it out in a way that is accurate.”
    Steve Guthrie, school board chairman who is seeking re-election to his Zone 2 seat, said he didn’t agree with Schwerdtle’s assessment of the Newsweek rankings.
    “For one, I’m very proud of that record,” Guthrie said. “I think we need to celebrate that for what it is. I think it’s a tremendous award and something we should be proud of.”
    Schwerdtle is basing her claim that the Newsweek rankings are a marketing scam on the fact that Newsweek is promoting sales of its “2013 America’s Best High Schools” logo through the PARS Newsgroup marketing firm in New York City. Through PARS, schools can purchase a one-year license to use the logo on websites, stationery, press releases and other items for $995.
    A premium package available through PARS costs $1,995. The package includes an all-weather hanging banner or a pop-up retractable standing banner, one wood plaque, one crystal trophy and a one-year multi-purpose logo license.
    Schwerdtle noted in an email to the Express that last year Newsweek selected only what it determined to be the top 1,000 high schools in the nation and this year doubled the number to 2,000.
    She referred to the Newsweek rankings as “simply a profit-driven marketing scam.”
    “[It] certainly seems very cynical to make money off of marketing a top high schools list that purports to give citizens a true picture of schools that offer the best education, so they can make decisions where to live, etc., when in fact it does nothing of the sort,” Schwerdtle wrote.

Ranking methodologies
    Newsweek reported that it invited more than 5,000 high schools to participate in the ranking survey and that about 2,500 high schools responded. Each school self-reported its own data.
    The rankings were based mainly on a school’s ability to turn out college-ready graduates. Considered in the rankings were graduation rates, college acceptance rates, test results for advanced-placement college courses taken by students, the percentage of students enrolled in advanced-placement courses and scores on college entrance exams.
    U.S. News reported that it considered performance of 21,000 high schools in the United States and hired the American Institutes for Research to independently collect and analyze data. Rankings considered how all students at a school were performing academically and not just those who were college-bound.
    The U.S. News ranking system considered average performance by students compared to statewide averages, performance by economically disadvantaged and minority students compared to state averages, participation by students in advanced-placement courses and test scores for advanced-placement courses.
    School District patrons Holmes Lundt and Ellen Mandeville were also critical of the Newsweek rankings and wrote in emails to the Express stating that the U.S. News rankings are more comprehensive and more accurate.
    “Ultimately, a better index is published by U.S. News and World Report, which doesn’t rely on self-reported data,” Lundt stated.
    “At least the School District is participating in a ranking survey,” Mandeville wrote. “Unfortunately, these aren’t the top 2,000 schools in the country. This is merely a ranking of school districts that chose to self-report their data.”
    District Communications Director Heather Crocker commented on the criticism in an email to the Express.
    “I’m not sure whether this is a criticism of Newsweek or of the accomplishments of our teachers and staff,” Crocker stated. “When I speak to teachers, they seem less concerned with national rankings and more focused on individual student success, which makes me proud to be part of BCSD.
    “I have yet to find one community that is listed as part of the Newsweek list that received media coverage that was negative,” Crocker stated. “It appears to me that other schools and communities are celebrating this news.”
Terry Smith:

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