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What's In A School Ranking?

Southwest, South, Henry take top honors. Why not others?

In a triumphant press release issued Tuesday evening, Minneapolis Public Schools crowed that  yet again beat out every other school in the state in the US News and World Report rankings of best public high schools in Minnesota. Also among the top 30 were South and Patrick Henry high schools.  was not among the 145 the report listed as "best in the state."

But do these rankings tell us anything new? In one sense, not really.

As the US News & World Report staff make clear, the ranking is essentially a test of how well a school encourages its students to take either International Baccalaureate (IB) or Advanced Placement (AP) tests, and what the passing rate is for those tests. Schools were not ranked if all their students did worse than the state average, or if their poor, black, or Latino students didn't do the same among their demographic group.

The discrepancy between Southwest's and Washburn's standardized test scores are well-known to anyone with an internet connection. The big difference in their student bodies is also well-known—nearly one-fourth of Southwest's students may qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, but Washburn's is over twice that at 62 percent. Broadly speaking, then, many more of Washburn's students are more likely to be starting one or more grade levels behind, have learning difficulties, or otherwise be less academically successful than students at Southwest.

So even if Washburn was successfully closing the achievement gap, it probably would still show up behind on the US News rankings, and get no credit for its efforts.

The US News methodology does make sense in two respects, though. First, IB and AP tests are the same across the country, meaning the magazine can compare schools from Florida to Alaska. Furthermore, the prevailing orthodoxy among college admissions officers gives a boost to students who take as many challenging courses in high school as possible.

Darrick Hills May 10, 2012 at 02:43 PM
How do South and Patrick Henry fare vs. Washburn in terms of students qualifying for free or reduced price lunches? I think those two schools and SW should be congratulated on doing quite well in the rankings. While SW may not have as many "poor, black, Latino" students, they certainly have a much large percentage than Edina, Eden Prairie and Minnetonka and somehow managed to finish ahead of them.
Kris Berggren May 10, 2012 at 03:35 PM
Just to be accurate, more than 35 percent of Southwest students now qualify for free or reduced price lunch.
James Sanna (Editor) May 10, 2012 at 03:49 PM
Yeah, they'll be a Title 1 school this year. The US News rankings were based off of "2011 numbers," which I think means the 2010-2011 school year, since I can't imagine the IB tests are all scored at this point, let alone all taken.
charles spolyar May 10, 2012 at 06:20 PM
There IS a reason why Washburn parents what the courses offered to look a little bit more like what SW has... BTW On the MN Progressive Project site they have an article about how in No Child Left Behind's way of looking at schools SW would be "failing" (huh ?!?)
Katie Bell May 11, 2012 at 12:54 PM
Actually, the USNWP rankings were based on 2009-2010 numbers. "We analyzed 21,776 public high schools in 49 states and the District of Columbia. This is the total number of public high schools that had 12th-grade enrollment and sufficient data, primarily from the 2009-2010 school year, to analyze."
Jesse Lykken May 14, 2012 at 06:27 PM
The article asserts an amazingly classist connection between socio-economic level and class success, stating that the "big difference" between Washburn and Southwest's student bodies is that many more Washburn kids qualify for free/reduced price lunch, and THAT is why Washburn's students are "starting from behind", "have learning difficulties", or "are less academically successful than students at Southwest". So, family income is what powers learning and good grades? Should poor kids just give up? If we gave poor families more money, would the kids do better at school? Do rich kids get all A's? Middle class kids all B's? Does my daughter have "learning difficulties" due to our family income, or because she is autistic? Does the fact that I make a lot less on my pension than I did with a salary mean my kids will be in danger of failing? In the end, as far as school rankings go, I think they mean a great deal of your kids attend Southwest, less if they attend South or Henry, and are totally meaningless and biased if your kids go to Washburn. For now.

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