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Tim Myers: What do high school rankings really mean?

myers’ musings

Posted: June 26, 2010 2:59 p.m.
Updated: June 27, 2010 4:30 a.m.

I have a good friend who spent several decades of his career in community college classroom education and decided purposely not to make the jump to administration, though eminently qualified.

Due to this, he looks sideways at school administrators, predicting how they will react to certain stimuli.

“If a school ranks high on some measure,” he said, “they will trumpet their success, but if they rank lower they will state the measure does not accurately reflect the quality of education at the institution.”

No surprise that Hart High School would recently trumpet their ranking of 619 on Newsweek’s 1,600-strong list of “America’s Best High Schools,” — proud of beating 1,316-place Valencia High School, and I guess absolutely burying West Ranch, Saugus, Golden Valley and Canyon high schools, which  did not even appear on the list.

Now many, including the Valencia website and Facebook page of “Awesometown,” jumped on this measurement quickly, pimping the obvious — that all parents who deeply care about their children should immediately drop money on a tract house in Valencia. The principal of Hart High School also bragged about the high quality of education received at the comprehensive high school on Newhall Avenue. People who have read this column for years know I turn a skeptical eye on these measurements, feeling they do too much to fuel suburban self-satisfaction.

So what does a closer look at this ranking reveal? The ranking measures the single issue of advanced-placement test penetration on a high school campus by dividing the number of AP tests taken in a specific year by the number of graduating seniors to develop an “index of excellence.”

A bit of a primer on AP courses: These “school within a school” courses for the more “advanced students” provide two salutary effects. First, at the end of the course students can sit for an AP test. If they receive a 3, 4 or a 5 on the test (5 being the highest) most U.S. colleges and universities will allow the student to gain transfer credit.

The second effect: An “A” in an AP course counts as “5” in the four-point grading system used in most American schools.

This allows students to inflate their GPA above 4.0, which leads to the rather ridiculous result that most schools in the University of California system sport an entering class with a GPA of around 4.10.

Make no mistake. Our family benefited from the AP system. Our oldest son carried 24 AP credits into University and it will allow him to graduate in 11 quarters — four less than the 15 generally now required for a bachelor’s degree.

However, a dark side does exist to the AP system, primarily the accusation that AP teachers design the courses to “cram” for the AP test. Also, grade inflation got so ridiculous that the UC system now only allows a limited number of AP courses to “count” toward the calculation of the application GPA.

So now back to the Newsweek list of 1,600, which amounts to about 6 percent of the public high schools in the nation.  A high school got on the list if it achieved an index score of “1.000,” which effectively meant that one half of its junior and senior class took at least one AP test. (Of course, in actuality about 10 percent of the students take multiple AP exams from their freshman year on.)

Based on this measure Hart High achieved an index score of 2.085 and Valencia High School achieved a score of 1.267.

Since the list incorporates just 6 percent of high schools in the country, Valencia parents can feel good that the school meets the minimum index of AP penetration, and Hart High does a measurably better job of promoting AP exams.

But a little humility check. In order to get into the elite top 1 percent of schools on the AP measure, Hart High would need
to increase AP tests given by 50 percent (Valencia would need to triple its AP output). However, in defense of “Awesometown,” the Valencia and Hart indexes put them in the same range with public high schools in other desirable Southern California suburban locations including Thousand Oaks, Simi Valley and the south Orange County suburbs of Irvine, Mission Viejo and Aliso Viejo.

But a final sobering thought: This measure relates to about 10 percent of the student body that take multiple AP tests, and provides no data on the teaching efficacy of the remaining 90 percent.

    Tim Myers is a Valencia resident. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. “Myers’ Musings” appears Sundays in The Signal.


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