To: Dr. Paul Sally, Superintendent
Board of Education, New Trier Township High School
From: Peter W. Tragos, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction
Re: Deconstructing High School Rankings
Date: May 13, 2021
History of High School Rankings
In 1998, Jay Mathews, then a staff writer for The Washington Post, developed the Challenge Index to rank the best high schools in America, including public, private, and charter schools. Considered the oldest high school ranking system in the country, the annual ranking was first published in Newsweek and then the list moved to The Washington Post. The allure of ranking and sorting schools obscured its simplistic and misguided singular metric: the number of Advanced Placement (AP) exams administered at a given school as a percentage of all the students in the school. This early version of the Challenge Index did not take into account students’ scores on those AP exams or other metrics -- not ACT or SAT scores, graduation rates, rigor of non-AP curriculum, college attendance rates, or academic and non-academic factors important to measuring student achievement and the quality of a school. Because schools could climb the rankings by funneling students into AP courses, many schools did just that, creating a race to AP. Just this year, Jay Mathews wrote an article reflecting on what he learned in 23 years since ranking schools. Interestingly, he admitted he “considered them just a stunt to publicize a book I had written.” The book was a flop, but the rankings were a hit. Though the metrics have evolved, and since moved to U.S. News and World Report, they are still an inaccurate measure of the quality of a high school.
U.S. News and World Report Annual Rankings
The 2021 U.S. News and World Report “Best High Schools” rankings are out and New Trier is ranked number 14 (#13 in 2020) in the state and number 322 (#313 in 2020) in the country. Each year the rankings create a buzz in the community, and many people wonder “why isn’t New Trier ranked higher?” We tend to ignore the rankings because they are fundamentally capricious and reductive. Be we recognize the marquee billing the rankings attract and know some people fear New Trier’s reputation has “slipped” in recent years. Our practice when addressing the rankings has been to make sure the Board of Education and community understand how the rankings were calculated, why the comparisons are invidious, and what we believe matters in assessing the quality of a high school. And most important, we share why New Trier is as strong as ever, and how our school frankly outperforms schools ranked higher on this particular list.
Deconstructing the Rankings
The methodology used to calculate rankings has evolved since the original Challenge Index. The rankings are based on a formula whose areas are titled College Readiness (30%), College Curriculum Breadth (10%), Math and Reading Proficiency (20%), Math and Reading Performance (20%), Underserved Student Performance (10%), and Graduation Rate (10%).
College Readiness and College Curriculum Breadth
College Readiness is one of our main goals as an institution, and we prepare students exceptionally well for their post-high school goals. Each year, our graduates who are 1 and 5 years out of high school complete a survey about how well-prepared they were for college, and each year they report being extremely well-prepared in areas such as writing, critical thinking, homework, and self-advocacy skills. Our alumni go on to make an impact in careers in government, social service, education, athletics, media, the arts, athletics, business, and other fields.
However, we clearly have a very different belief from these rankings about how we accomplish that goal with our students. The only measure these rankings use to evaluate a high school on College Readiness is AP courses. The thought that the only way to measure the skills students develop in important areas such as critical thinking, discussion, writing, and research is through AP classes is short-sighted and incomplete.
While we have a robust AP program and offer as many AP courses as any school in Illinois, our overall philosophy about AP is very different from many schools who allow and encourage freshmen and sophomores to take these courses as a way to advance and standardize their curriculum. New Trier does not allow freshmen and sophomores to take AP courses. We believe the best approach to develop college readiness during freshman and sophomore year is to engage these younger students in courses that are broader in skill development and more developmentally appropriate than AP courses - which are designed to replicate a college curriculum. Even in the junior and senior years, our teacher-created offerings are as rigorous and important to developing students’ skills as any AP class. An American Studies class or a Senior Writers Seminar class extends our students’ development in ways that a course constrained by a specific AP curriculum cannot.
In addition, across all content areas, we offer alternatives to AP courses to develop the college readiness skills we know are important. Our teachers have designed rich and rigorous curricula, focusing on developing critical thinking, writing, problem-solving and analytical skills, and communication and collaboration skills that prepare students exceedingly well for college and post high school life.
As a result of this methodology and because we are not beholden to the College Board’s curriculum, on this well-publicized and extremely flawed list, New Trier ranks 21st in the state in the College Readiness category among open enrollment high schools (schools that accept all students within a geographic boundary rather than requiring a test or other measure for acceptance). The measure is incomplete and leads to inaccurate conclusions. “Emphasis on AP Courses” would be a much better title for these categories
Mathematics and Reading Proficiency
To further demonstrate how flawed this ranking system is, while ranking 21st in supposed College Readiness, New Trier ranks first in the state among open enrollment schools on both Mathematics Proficiency and Reading Proficiency - measures determined by the only standardized test all Illinois high school students are required to take, the SAT. We are proud of our students’ performance, but we do not think this is a sole measure of the quality of our education. Still, for a magazine that insists on finding a way to compare and rank schools, it seems odd that it would place so little value on a measure every student in the state of Illinois is required to take to graduate. New Trier historically has been the state’s top open enrollment school for average composite scores on the SAT and the ACT when that was the state-required test.
It is important to note that New Trier’s extraordinary ACT and SAT achievement applies to students who do not take an AP class as well as those who do. The ACT scores of our students who do not take an AP course in English and Math show they are exceedingly well prepared for the rigors of college academics and shows the limited nature of the “college readiness” category in these rankings. One concrete example that illustrates the success of our system is to look at students in the class of 2019 (last class to take a district ACT) who took 3-level English in their Senior year, never having taken an AP English class. Those students had an average English ACT score of 28.0 (ACT college readiness benchmark: 18), with 40% of these students scoring in the top 10% in the nation on this test. Similarly, students who took 3-level Precalculus in their Senior year, never having taken an AP math class, scored an average 27.2 (ACT college readiness benchmark: 22) with 43% scoring in the top 9% of the nation. These are New Trier students with scores in the top 10% of the nation, who are not recognized in U.S. News’ College Readiness or College Curriculum Breath index. And for those students who do take AP exams, 92% earn a qualifying score of 3 or higher, a higher average than many schools ranked higher than New Trier.
Unlike many other schools, our students have non-AP options that offer similar rigor with a different experience that meets their needs or interests. For example, Juniors who choose not to take AP U.S. History and AP Language and Composition have alternatives like American Studies, 4-level. And for Seniors, they have many 4-level non-AP options in English, Social Studies, and Science. This variety speaks to our philosophy of providing a rigorous, developmentally appropriate curriculum across all four years, with an emphasis on high-quality instruction and high-quality relationships that prepare New Trier students for college coursework and post high school goals -- outcomes that cannot be measured with such a myopic methodology like the one applied to U.S. News and World Report’s annual rankings.
Rankings such as these make a big splash and sell magazines and generate clicks. Beyond the examples mentioned above, these rankings do a disservice to high school students by failing to consider metrics that are difficult to measure, such as the elective experiences students have in high school, the extracurricular opportunities available, social-emotional development needed to be successful in college, positive school climate where students feel a sense of belonging which is strongly correlated to achievement in high school and college, and the support services that are available for students who are struggling academically or with mental health. We do not promote any ranking sites, but it is worth noting that the same week the latest rankings came out from U.S. News and World Report, another ranking site, Academic Influence, came out with its list of the country’s best public high schools and ranked New Trier #4 on that list based on the varied accomplishments of its alumni.
We do not believe that rankings are a fair assessment of any school. Rankings such as U.S. News or Academic Influence must be considered by looking at the details of what they are counting and measuring, not just what name they choose to give a category. Our students truly live our motto in an exceptional manner by committing minds to inquiry, hearts to compassion, and lives to the service of humanity. Their New Trier education leaves them well-prepared to lead meaningful, compassionate, and impactful lives after graduation.