Wheatley and Newsweek’s High School Rankings

Last month, yet another organization published its listing of the top high schools in the United States. This time, it was Newsweek’s “America’s Top High Schools” ranking list. As I quickly heard from some parents, Wheatley was not included in this year’s Newsweek rankings list.

As some of you may know, I do not hold these lists in high regard—even when Wheatley is ranked very high on the list. I have presented overviews of the various ranking systems to the Board of Education. I have also written a lengthy analysis of problems with the 2015 US News & World Report rankings (these problems were investigated further by a national educational expert).

As there is no objective way in which one can possible determine which high schools are “the best” in the country, the ranking systems reflect more about the specific values of the designers than actual reality. That said, I recognize the importance of understanding these various ranking systems and how Wheatley’s overall outstanding performance fits into their methodologies.

So why did Wheatley — a school ranked in the top 1% of schools in other ranking systems — fail to get ranked at all by Newsweek? The answer is clear: Newsweek simply gathers data from a national site without any attempt to understand the data. As a result, student scores on the 8th grade NYS Assessments were used to determine Wheatley’s high school proficiency rate.

Let me explain…

A few notes about the Newsweek Ranking Methodology:

  1. The Newsweek methodology speaks of a multi-step, data-centered process in order to reduce its 16,285 public high schools to a list of 500. The public data used were from the 2012-13 school year. This is the data set that is used to determine which schools receive an invitation to complete a Newsweek-specific survey. Only schools invited to complete this survey are included in the rankings.
  2. In order to determine which schools met the “Threshold Index” necessary to receive an invitation to complete a survey to appear on the final list, Newsweek calculated a weighted index consisting of mathematics and English performance. In order to be considered for the full National Ranking list, a school needed to have a combined performance index that placed it at the top 30% of schools in its state.

In an email, Newsweek informed me that Wheatley did not have a combined performance index that placed it in the top 30% of New York State schools. Goodness…anyone familiar with the performance of Wheatley students is well aware that this is absolutely nonsense!

Here is what I found when I investigated Newsweek’s methodology and the data it used.

Data Difficulties

The reason why Newsweek did not feel that Wheatley met the initial threshold criteria is the result of the particularity of Wheatley’s 8-12 configuration. For data classification at the federal level, Wheatley is considered a single entity. As such, the performance of our 8th graders on their NYS 8th Grade Assessments is included in our overall performance index. Once again, the 8th Grade NYS exams are included along with the high school Regents examinations as part of the threshold calculation. Due to the nature of the 8th Grade assessments, Wheatley’s overall performance index was lowered significantly.

Since other high schools that are connected to middle school grades have a separate code for these grades, the Grade 8 assessments do not impact the high school performance index.

To illustrate, the table below includes the Long Island schools that are included in the top 300 positions of Newsweek’s list. The passing rates for the English Regents (typically taken in 11th grade) and the Integrated Algebra exam (typically taken in 8th or 9th grade) are included for each district. Since many high school students take the Integrated Algebra exam in middle school, the Integrated Geometry exam becomes the exam considered in the performance index. The passing rate for this exam is included as well.

As per Newsweek’s Methodology, these intitial data are from 2012-13.

Regents Test Scores

When looking only at our Regents passing rates for these three examinations, Wheatley students perform at an exceptionally high level. Since Wheatley is considered a single entity for grades 8-12, Newsweek included student performance on the 8th grade middle school assessments as part of our high school performance index.

Once again, a typical 7-12 school has one code for its middle grades and a separate code for its high school grades.

It should be noted that for the 2012-13 school year (the year on which Newsweek based its threshold calculations), students taking Integrated Algebra (a high school course) in the 8th grade were required to take the NYS 8th Grade Assessment as well — despite the fact that the two curricula are quite different.

Despite our students’ outstanding performance at these high school examinations (99% in English and 97% in Algebra), the inclusion of the middle school test scores lowered Wheatley’s overall proficiency rate (to 82% in English and 71% in Mathematics) and prevented Wheatley from even being considered as a top high school.

It is important to note that this is the only place where performance in the middle grades had any impact on a high school’s performance index. The other national ranking systems — US News & World Report and the Challenge Index — do not use middle level performance to determine high school rankings.

These lower (combined) rates prevented Wheatley from exceeding Newsweek’s threshold index value. This is why Wheatley was never even considered for Newsweek’s top high school ranking list.

Students at Wheatley are finding academic success at unprecedented rates and numbers. On so many levels, students are dazzling our faculty with their achievements. Most importantly, their academic success is coupled with a wonderful blend of community service, athletic engagement, artistic accomplishment and general kindness to each other. These are all components of a high-quality school, and they are abundant at our school.

At any school, student performance fluctuates from year to year. We monitor the results of student assessments — whether school-based, state-based or nationally-based— and make adjustments in our curricula, pedagogy and support in order to help students be as successful as possible. When the data appear to be suspect (as in the case of the Newsweek rankings), we investigate in order to prevent blind adherance to data from leading us to faulty conclusions.

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