By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
The Houston Press/Children At Risk survey goes beyond the Texas Education Agency's singular criterion for evaluating school performance -- the percentage of students who pass the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test -- and considers a variety of factors proven to contribute to a school's success.
In addition to TAKS scores, weights were assigned to graduation rates, SAT scores, average class size and various other factors (see "Methodology" for a complete explanation). To help level the playing field between rich and poor schools, scores were adjusted for socioeconomic status, based on the percentage of students on the federally subsidized lunch program.
This mix of objective and subjective criteria is critical to gauging a school's overall performance, says Sanborn, who determined that graduation rates would be weighted most heavily. He used a variation of the Manhattan Institute's widely accepted formula, which essentially compares the number of graduating seniors in 2004 with the freshman class in 2001 while adjusting for growth in each grade.
This was deemed a tougher and more accurate way of measuring graduation rates than the TEA's system, which allows for a variety of exemptions. For instance, students who leave and get a General Equivalency Degree, who say they're being homeschooled or who serve time in a juvenile detention facility and never return are not considered dropouts, according to the state.
Education experts say these exemptions result in a massive undercount that deceives the public about the actual number of high school dropouts (see "But Who's Counting?" by Margaret Downing, October 18, 2001).
In August 2005, the TEA reported for the '03-'04 school year an annual dropout rate of just 1.2 percent for Texas high schoolers. Meanwhile, the Intercultural Development Research Association in San Antonio set the statewide dropout rate at a more realistic 36 percent. In Harris County, the attrition rate is currently a staggering 54 percent for Hispanics and 48 percent for African Americans, according to the IDRA.
School districts are responsible for reporting their own graduation rates to the state. This is problematic since school funding and accountability ratings are tied to attendance rates. Last October a Sharpstown High School staffer was indicted for fudging a government document to make it appear there were zero dropouts during the '01-'02 school year.
"It's like telling a student to grade himself," Sanborn chides.
Houston ISD Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra's recent pledge to create a "college-bound culture" is predicated on students' getting through high school. To Saavedra's credit, the state's largest school district has employed some innovative strategies, including opening a new high school for immigrants at risk of dropping out.
"Education," says Dr. Stephen Klineberg, a sociology professor at Rice University, "is the most critical issue that we face in a world where what you earn depends on what you've learned, where there is no longer a blue-collar path to economic security, where the gap between rich and poor is accelerating, predicated above all else, on education beyond high school."
It's no wonder, then, that everyone from parents and kids to local, state and federal lawmakers is eager to know how schools are performing. The Bush administration's No Child Left Behind program is essentially a rating system that punishes or rewards schools based on student test scores.
There are countless ways to measure a school's success.
In the Newsweek effort, education author Jay Mathews created a controversial rating system for the 1,000 best public high schools in America. Bellaire High in Houston ISD led the pack at 113.
Mathews used a simple ratio: the number of advanced placement and/or International Baccalaureate tests taken by all students at a school in 2004, divided by the number of graduating seniors. Mathews asserts in the article that AP and IB courses show proof of academic rigor, since they can sometimes be used for college credit.
But many educators rejected this evaluation system, since AP/IB tests fall outside school curricula and have no effect on a student's grade-point average or class standing. According to Newsweek's methodology, schools with large numbers of students who didn't pass the AP or IB courses still benefited in the rankings.
"It makes no sense," says Michael McKie, principal at Clements High School in Fort Bend ISD, which ranked 315 in the Newsweek assessment. "Some schools say they enroll kids in AP programs, but they don't even teach the AP curriculums."
And which school, according to Newsweek, is America's finest? Jefferson County IBS in Irondale, Alabama.
Jefferson County IBS topped the list though it's a smaller school located within the large campus of Shades Valley High, which failed to make the cut. Jefferson IBS is ranked first simply because it's an all-IB school. So when the number of AP/IB test takers is divided by the number of graduating seniors, a perfect score is achieved.
A closer look at other schools in Newsweek's top ten reveals the shortcomings of its methodology.
According to Newsweek, Florida is a mecca for great high schools. No fewer than five of its top-ten schools reside in the Sunshine State. But the Florida Department of Education is less than impressed by the magazine's selections.