Why NYC High Schools Struggle With US News & World Report Rankings

The US News & World Report released their latest rankings of America’s top public high-schools last month. Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña was quick to crow about how New York City schools topped the New York State list. The majority of those were specialized high schools, the ones her boss, Mayor Bill de Blasio, accuses students of cheating to get into. (Although not his son, of course. Dante de Blasio got into Brooklyn Technical High School fair and square. Just like the Deputy Mayor’s son got into Middle School….)

But what Chancellor Fariña did not mention was that NYC schools actually ranked lower than they should nationally. One reason is how US News & World Report calculates their metrics. Another is how the NYC Department of Education allocates resources.

In addition to comparing state norms, graduation rates, and Black, Hispanic and low-income reading/math proficiency numbers, US News and World Report places a lot of weight on the  College Readiness Index, which is based on a school’s Advanced Placement (AP) participation rate.

In 2017, the top 10 US public high schools included five schools from the BASIS Charter Network. Scottsdale was #1, Tuscon #2, Oro Valley #3, Peoria #5, and Chandler #7. BASIS also runs a K-12 school in Brooklyn, and will be opening a K-8 in Manhattan this September. However, unlike the rest of their charter network, both NYC schools are private. At a public panel I moderated, founder Dr. Michael Block explained that he couldn’t open BASIS as a charter school in NYC  because they would have been prevented from using their own exclusive curriculum.

The #1 ranked NYC school on the list is The High School of American Studies at Lehman College at #17. Manhattan Bridges High School (which serves a tiny population – 510 students total – of native Spanish speakers) was #25, followed immediately by The High School of Math, Science and Engineering at City College. Both American Studies and City College are relatively new and smaller specialized high schools, established only in this century to accommodate the vast demand for accelerated coursework.

So where are the old stalwarts, NYC’s jewels in the crown, the original three specialized high schools, alma maters of a record number of Nobel Prize winners (more than many whole countries)? Where are Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech?  

They are #71, #46, #68, respectively.

Interesting, isn’t it? Students need a higher score on the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) to get into Stuy and Bronx Science than they do for any of the other schools. So why the discrepancy in US News & World Report rankings?

Test scores, of course, don’t tell you everything about a student. There are also harder to measure qualities like motivation, persistence, resilience. But you’d think a kid who’d studied to ace the SHSAT would have all those things.

The answer comes from the nature of the schools, themselves. Stuy, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech are much larger than the top-scoring specialized high schools ahead of them. Stuy and Bonx Sci have over 3,000 students each, while Brooklyn Tech doubles that with a whopping almost 6,000!

Obviously, they’re going to have a harder time getting 100% of their students to take and pass an AP exam. Not necessarily because the kids aren’t willing or fail to rise to the challenge. But because the schools simply don’t offer enough AP classes to accommodate everyone who wants in.

At my oldest son’s school, Stuyvesant, you don’t just sign up for an AP class. You have to qualify. Think having an A average makes you a shoo-in? Think again! If your A is a lousy 92%, you might get edged out by all the kids scoring above 96%. Every point and fraction of a point counts if you want to get into an AP class, and many top performing kids are shut out.

His Junior year, my son clawed his way into an Advanced Social Science Research class. Only to be told at the last minute that it had been cancelled. There weren’t enough teachers to go around.

The same thing happens at the AP level. While Chancellor Fariña is happy to collect accolades for her schools’ rankings, she neglects to admit that, at the same time, her department is failing to provide adequate teachers for her highest-performing students. It’s almost like they’re succeeding in spite of the DOE, not because of it.

It’s an established fact that the city is failing its low-performers, with over 50% of high-school graduates not exiting college-ready. But there’s a problem at the top, too. The US News and World Report rankings are not a perfect tool but, nonetheless, they should serve as a wake up call about thousands of qualified kids losing their opportunity to take AP classes.

What do you think?

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