Why High Schools Move in and out of the Rankings

A detailed look at changes in the 2010 America's Best High Schools rankings.

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Since the release of our new 2010 America's Best High Schools listings, a frequent question has been why schools rise or fall in the rankings. There are three main reasons a school changed its place or lost its place entirely in the 2010 America's Best High Schools rankings.

1. Changes in relative performance on state tests

Some schools fell off the list altogether because they are no longer among the best-performing schools on their statewide tests—meaning that their overall student performance on state tests did not exceed statistical expectations (step 1) or the performance of their least advantaged students was not as good as the state average (step 2). Without successfully meeting both of these two state-test-focused steps, schools are not eligible for any medal recognition, although they are still evaluated independently on their college readiness to determine whether they merit honorable mention. In some cases, schools that earned medals last year but had a lower performance on state tests earned honorable mention status this year. Read the America's Best High Schools ranking methodology for more details. According to Paul Gazzerro, the lead analyst at Standard & Poor's who worked in partnership with U.S. News, this is what happened to three Maryland high schools that went from gold medal status in the 2009 ranking to honorable mention in the 2010 rankings.

"In Maryland, the High School Assessment (HSA) results for 2007-08 (used for the 2010 list of America's Best High Schools) were marked by improvements in performance from the prior year for most schools across the state," Gazzerro said, "This improvement, which for most schools was significant, was nonetheless uneven—some schools improved more than others. The three schools in the Bethesda area-Walt Whitman, Thomas S. Wootton, and Winston Churchill-all experienced an improvement in their students' performance on the HSA reading and math subject tests, but not as much as that achieved by schools with similar levels of student poverty. As a result, these schools went from exceeding statistical expectations in 2006-07 (i.e., meeting step 1 of our criteria) to meeting expectations in 2007-08 (i.e., failing to meet step 1). This is not to say that their performance was bad, simply that it was not quite good enough. As to honorable mention status, their step 3 performance ( their College Readiness Index, which measures the percentage of students both taking and passing at least one AP or IB exam during high school) was among the top 100 schools in the country; had they met step 1, they would have again been gold medal schools."

2. Changes in relative or absolute performance on college-level coursework as it affects the school's College Readiness Index (CRI)

Some schools may have changed ranks either up or down because of how the performance and participation of their class on Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams compare with those of the class cohort from a year earlier. The determination of college readiness is based upon the performance and participation of 12th graders from the graduating class in the most recent academic year (i.e., whether or not these students took—and passed—any AP or IB exams during their years at the school, up to and including their senior year). Many schools have experienced a change in their status, from as little as a few places in the gold medal rankings to changes in their medal status, because of changes in the school's College Readiness Index. 3. Changes in how schools offering both IB and AP programs were evaluated

The 2010 list marks the second year in which International Baccalaureate data were available. For schools that offer both IB and AP coursework, the calculation of their College Readiness Index has been modified to better capture the degree to which these schools are offering some form of college-level coursework. For the 2010 list, the data for the larger program (i.e., the program serving a larger percentage of the school's students) are used to calculate the school's CRI. This change may have been the reason that some schools offering both AP and IB changed rankings this year compared with last year. Read the Frequently Asked Questions for details on how the methodology changed.

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