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  • Rebecca Potter

School Rankings: How We Lie to Ourselves about What Makes a School "Good"


The US News and World Report has just published its national ranking of public schools. Schools that ranked well are using that information to taut how good they are. Bragging rights. Proof that they are doing a good job. Evidence that they are a "good school."

But it's not that simple.

A lot of criticism exists about this report and others like it, for many reasons. The report uses AP/IB participation, standardized test scores, and graduation rates to rank the schools. 10% of the calculation is how well minority students do, but this number is skewed because it does not distinguish among minorities and the challenges they face. This creates a false narrative, misleading data, and wrong conclusions.

First, many schools choose to not participate in AP or IB. Those programs are great for what they are, but schools do not need to participate in either one to be good. Seneca High School, where I teach, focuses much more on dual credit programs and co-op programs. Both of these efforts give our students a head start in their college and career journeys. But these programs are not a part of the ranking system.

Second, the ranking system fails to consider so much of what makes a great school. For example, how qualified and experienced are the teachers? What other college and career readiness efforts exist in the school? What is the culture like? How well does the school serve students with learning disabilities? Multilingual learners? What about extra-curricular? Student voice? Equity progress? Courses offered? etc. The value of a school is much, much more than a number.

Third, and perhaps most important, is that the ranking system ignores the context of the school. Demographics are discussed but skewed or left out entirely in the ranking equation. Students who come from economically disadvantaged homes face challenges that make academic success much harder to attain. Students of color face obstacles that threaten to dismantle their success every single day. Students who have learning disabilities are judged unfairly by test scores. Multilingual learners are compared to learners whose first language is English and are judged unfairly because of it.

Schools score higher on standardized tests and are consequently ranked higher simply because they do not have these kinds of students in their schools. Something about that makes me sick on my stomach. Something about that feels wrong. We are not ranking the quality of education in our schools. We are ranking and rating our students based on wealth and race.

I have taught at schools that rank high and others that rank low. My children have attended high-ranking and low-ranking schools. Based on my experiences as a teacher and mother, I know that those numbers have absolutely no reflection on the quality of education that students receive.

All of this to say that the rankings are meaningless at best and dangerous at worst. These rankings threaten to perpetuate racist and classist divides, create greater obstacles for our most vulnerable students, and destroy public education's promise of equal opportunity.

I am proud to work at a school where our administrators are not consumed and distracted by test scores and empty rankings. They know that those numbers are not a fair representation of the quality of our school or the remarkable abilities of our students. I am proud to send my son to a school where diversity, equity, and acceptance are lived out, not just preached about in a safe vacuum of wealth and whiteness.

Seneca High School is not a top-ranked school. We have problems. We face the daunting task of serving students who come into the classroom with incredible challenges that would break the strongest of adults. Our teachers come into that same classroom with skill, patience, resolve, and enthusiasm.

Our faculty have the immense joy of teaching Seneca's young people. These students are valuable, interesting, intelligent, creative, and simply wonderful. They are incredibly talented, resilient, funny, and amazing. They are my kids, and I love them.

They deserve the best. They are the best.

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