A top-100 list roils high schools

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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.)

The top 100 public schools are listed in the magazine's print edition, and the website includes the top 1,000. Newsweek first published this list in 1998.

As he explains on the website, Mathews chose this measure because he believes AP and IB courses are rigorous and prepare students for the shock of tougher, college-level work before they graduate. At least it's a more creative measure of schools than simple reliance on standardized test results, say some supporters.

"When so much of our attention is focused on proficiency in terms of [the 2001 federal education law] No Child Left Behind and graduation rates, [The Best High Schools ranking is] forcing people to focus energy on some measure of excellence," says Frederick Hess, director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.

But others question the use of the AP or IB test as the sole indicators, suggesting instead that they should be one of many measures.

At the 4,000-student New Trier Township High School in Winnetka, Ill., 93 percent of students go on to four-year colleges after graduation. Despite the school's impressive performance, it did not make Newsweek's top 100 list. (New Trier weighed in at 293.)

Hank Bangser, superintendent of the New Trier district, is critical of school rankings in general but particularly disapproves of using AP tests because he believes it discriminates against schools with large student bodies and a diverse curriculum.

Many students at New Trier, Mr. Bangser says, might qualify to take AP courses but opt instead to take special courses in subjects like dance or computers. At smaller schools, with fewer choices, the same students might enroll in AP because they lack alternatives.

"Any person working in education knows that there is no single criterion that conveys institutional excellence," Bangser says.

Yet even educators who understand such limits can fall prey to the desire to see their schools score higher - and that pressure can have its dangers, warn some list critics.

One problem with the Newsweek ranking is the danger that it "creates perverse incentives to offer AP," says Mr. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute. "It's easy to imagine districts and schools getting caught up in gamesmanship," he says.

As they compete to offer more AP courses without concern for how they're being taught, says Hess, it could "dilute" the quality of instruction and the significance of college-level courses in high school.

Others object to the list on broader grounds.

If possible, says Jon Reider, director of college counseling at the private San Francisco University High School in California, "the ranking of high school is even more foolish" than ranking colleges.

"Most people go to high school ... within a very limited geographic area," says Mr. Reider. "So what is the point?"

"It's pandering to the American obsession with good, better, best," continues the former admissions officer at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.

As a private school, Reider's University High isn't even in contention for a slot on the list. But Reider doesn't mind. "We just think it's distracting. It's silly."

Robert Tuttle in New York contributed to this report.

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