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A top-100 list roils high schools

Do best-of lists spur schools to try harder - or simply feed an obsession with rank?

By Teresa MéndezStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 12, 2005

A radiant Carrie MeGahee beams at readers from the May 16 cover of Newsweek. Inside, the magazine lists America's Best High Schools for 2005 - and Carrie's own Jefferson County International Baccalaureate School in Irondale, Ala., holds the top spot.

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Best-of lists abound in the education world: There are the best business schools, law schools, medical schools and, of course, colleges - with the most influential and best known being the annual U.S. News & World Report index of America's Best Colleges.

But the Newsweek list leaves some in the high school world scratching their heads. Due to the way this list is calculated, some schools usually lauded as the nation's best are shut out. Others rarely touted, or even heard of - including several in Florida and other Southern states - are elevated to the top.

It's an upending that some applaud as both a refreshing change and a more accurate measure. For others, though, it raises a bigger question of the value - or lack thereof - of such lists.

Even their critics admit that, if done well, these rankings can be helpful. In a quick glance, they aid both students and parents in differentiating among a vast array of educational options. Still, many educators wonder how productive our national obsession with ordering really is.

At worst, they say, it can create perverse, and sometimes dishonest, competition as schools struggle to leapfrog past each other up the ranks.

An unhealthy obsession with lists is one characteristic of what psychology professor Barry Schwartz calls "maximizers" - those overachievers who aspire for the best, but are often left unhappy and unfulfilled by unrealistic expectations.

"I have a feeling that people are seduced by all of this against their will," says Mr. Schwartz, a professor at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and the author of "The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less."

"As long as people have a sense that we live in a winner-take-all society, they're going to care about these rankings. Parents believe you either succeed or you fall into an abyss. There is no middle ground."

Jay Mathews, Washington Post writer and creator of the list for Newsweek, recognizes this fascination:

"We are tribal primates with a deep commitment to pecking orders," he writes on Newsweek's website. "We cannot resist looking at ranked lists."

He uses it to his - and, he hopes, high schools' - advantage: "I rank to get attention, nothing more, in hopes people will then argue about the list and in the process think about the issues it raises."

Mr. Mathews writes that he hopes his list will encourage high schools to offer more rigorous curricula by praising those schools that have already done so.

Not a bad goal at time when high school has come under the spotlight for failing to adequately prepare students for college and the world beyond. High schools have drawn attention - and some fire - from people as varied as US Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, who now famously called them "obsolete."

To calculate high school rank, Newsweek uses an index that divides the number of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate tests taken by students at public high schools in 2004 by the number of graduating seniors at their school that year. (IB is an advanced curriculum of college-level courses similar to AP.)