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High School Rankings: What Do They Mean?

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based on 115 ratings
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Updated on Jul 14, 2008

First came lists naming the country’s “best colleges.” Then magazines began ranking high schools. With a click of the mouse, parents can read whether their local school is considered one of the top 100 in the country, one of the top 1000, or whether it fails to make the cut. While this may fill “winners” with pride, it leaves others wondering why their wonderful school didn’t make the list, and how any one school can claim to be the “best” anyway.

“There are plenty of rankings available, and some feel like ‘beauty’ contest awards – ‘best test scores,’ ‘top debate or sports teams’ etc,” says Paul Gazzerro, Director of School Evaluation Services, which helped create the methodology used for US News and World Report’s “Best High Schools” issue. “So, despite how tempting it is to get excited about a ‘best school’ ranking, the first question any skeptical consumer should ask is, ‘best at what?’”

Newsweek’s list of the “Top 1300 High Schools,” for example, is based on the number of students taking Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB) or Cambridge tests. New Jersey Monthly’s list of “Top High Schools in New Jersey” is based on a number of factors, including the school environment, student performance on AP and SAT exams, and the number of students going on to college. US News and World Report’s “Best High Schools” list, which bills itself as the most thorough, is based on a complex stew that takes into account the relative performance of financially disadvantaged and minority students, as well as college preparation.

For parents, these lists often raise as many questions as they answer. Many excellent schools don’t make the list, although they send scores of students on to competitive colleges. Other schools on the list might be ideal for high-achieving kids, but provide few, if any, services for kids with special needs, or those not bound for college. Some schools achieve high scores by cutting time spent in art, drama, music and sports. Others simply don’t have the budget to offer extracurriculars. Additionally, because these lists rank only public schools, they exclude many of the country’s most prestigious independent schools.

“Lists like these are tools, not solutions,” says Dan Gilbert, Lecturer at the Stanford School of Education. “I think parents can use these lists as a tool for reflection on what makes a good school and what makes a school good for their child.”

While it’s exciting to see a great school recognized, it’s just as important to remind yourself that education isn’t one-size-fits-all. Whether your child’s school is #1, #200, or not on the list at all is probably less important than how she fits in there. Only you can judge the best school for your child, and any child with parents that invested in her education is likely to thrive anywhere.

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