How Valuable Are High School Rankings?

Most everyone is familiar with annual college rankings and why they're published, but fewer might know that high schools across the country are also ranked. But do these rankings have value?'s Education Insider takes a closer look at high school rankings and what they mean.

By Harrison Howe


A Measure of College Preparation

For the most part, high school rankings are largely based on Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) testing. Rankings conducted by The Washington Post, using the Challenge Index, take the number of AP and IB tests taken by students and divide it by the number of graduating seniors. The idea is that this generally reflects how well a school prepares students for college.

The 2011 high school rankings published by Newsweek did not use the Challenge Index as its sole indicator, as it has in the past. This year, Newsweek included other factors, such as graduation rate, average SAT/ACT and AP/IB scores and AP courses per graduate.

U.S. News and World Report also releases a Gold Medal list, which ranks the top 100 out of 21,000 public high schools using a three-step process that includes AP and IB test scores, but uses the number of seniors who took the tests rather than the entire number of graduating seniors. To pass the first step in the process and remain under consideration schools must show that scores for reading and math tests are higher than state averages. In the second step, test scores for low income and minority students are compared to state averages for students in the same groups.

So, beyond how any given high school is preparing students for college, do the rankings measure anything else? Not really. For instance, the overall quality of any particular high school is not measured. No consideration is given for hard-working teachers and administrators. In addition, while the number of AP and other college-level tests and courses are counted, no attention is paid to how many students are actually passing these exams and classes.

Of Limited Value

Jay Mathews, the Washington Post journalist who designed the Challenge Index, claims the methodology used by Newsweek may be misleading. For example, incorporating graduation rates, Mathews feels, gives schools in more affluent areas an advantage over their less-affluent counterparts because graduation rates will normally be lower in poorer areas. Mathews himself admits that the rankings should not be the only way to judge a high school.

So what, then, is the true value of high school rankings?

Perhaps their greatest worth is to colleges. For instance, if two applicants have a nearly identical academic record and SAT/ACT scores and only one can be chosen, the college can use the rankings to see which student attended a college preparatory and thus more rigorous program.

But are high school rankings valuable to students themselves? Maybe not so much. For the most part, high schoolers do not have a say over which school they can attend. This is mostly based on their geographic location. However, in the few areas where students can attend a high school of their own choosing, then the rankings could allow them to compare local schools and decide which one would best help them meet their current and future academic goals.

Find out more about the positives and negatives of high school students taking college courses.

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