For the last month or so, the subject of school rankings has been a hot topic in Oak Ridge.
Last month, we learned that we didn’t make the Newsweek ranking, where we’ve enjoyed a spot for the last several years. Â A bit later, we learned that we do actually qualify for the ranking, but didn’t get the paperwork in on time. Â Somewhere between the two, there’s been a lot of talk (and ink) about whether the Newsweek ranking is a valid measure of quality, and whether it matters.
Like most things, the truth is in the middle.
Yes, the rankings do matter to a lot of us. Â Businesses use them to recruit top staff, realtors use them to sell homes in Oak Ridge, and those of us with children at the high school take some measure of comfort in knowing that the high standard of academic performance remains so. Â From this mom’s perspective, if a significant percentage of the kids at the high school are taking college-level courses, it surrounds our own kids with a kind of positive peer pressure to do well. Â To study. Â To put academics ahead of some of the other high school social distractions.
On the other hand, is the Newsweek ranking a realistic measure of quality? Â Well, yes and no. Â It measures the ratio of AP tests taken to the number of graduates in a given year. Â It doesn’t measure the number of tests passed, nor the number of classes taken, so it’s subject to some skew: some kids take the AP courses, but don’t take the test. Â The $83 fee to take the test may be something of a barrier, particularly if a student knows that that particular course won’t count toward their intended major.
If you want to measure the quality of the AP program, you’d count the scores acheived on these AP tests. Â If you just want to measure how many students are exposed to the rigor of a college-level course, you only have to count the courses taken, not the tests taken.
Even so, counting anything to do with AP tests is only one measure. Â It’s important to a lot of us, but it’s still only a snapshot of one component of a good high school education.
There are other rankings, certainly. Â US News does one that Oak Ridge has never been on (that I know of), but that one predominantly measures how well minority subgroups perform. Â To me, that is even less accurate as a reflection of overall quality than the Newsweek ranking based on AP tests taken.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve given considerable thought to the idea of rating high schools, and how one might devise a ranking sytem that really means something across the board. Â To do so, I think you’d have to be able to measure one thing: Â how well does this school prepare students for the next step in their lives — whatever that step may be? Â At ORHS, most students go on to college. Â Some enter the military. Â Some enter vocational training, and others enter the workforce.
So, how would one accurately measure successful preparation for that variety of paths?