During my many years as a superintendent, I always had mixed emotions about New Jersey Monthly magazine’s biennial rankings of the state’s high schools.

Parents took the rankings seriously. School board members took the rankings seriously. So did students and staff. But I always hoped that college admissions counselors kept them in proper context. Even though placing in the top 20 gives bragging rights to many a board member and superintendent—and here, I stand guilty as charged—the primary benefactors of ranking systems often are the publications themselves and the real estate brokers who use the information as a sales tool.

Of course, parents and taxpayers have every right to know about student performance, class size, teaching staff experience and finances. However, when attempts are made to merge these and other factors into a single measure—whether it’s a ranking or a letter grade—oversimplification and misperception occur.

Last month, another lifestyle magazine, InJersey, gave a letter grade to each of our state’s high schools. The process was based on two factors: (1) an academic achievement composite derived from SAT scores, New Jersey HSPA results, and the percentage of students scoring at advanced proficient levels on the HSPA; and (2) the increase in the academic achievement composite from 2008 to 2012.  Where a district stood in relation to the state average on factor 1 (academic achievement) and factor 2 (growth in academic achievement) determined the InJersey grade of A, B, C or D.

Letter grading apparently was an attempt by InJersey to be reader-friendly, but it often resulted in confusion and, in some cases, negative misperception. The letter grades also produced distress among a large number of school officials. With good reason: they appeared to oversimplify outcomes to the point of being out of context.

For example, InJersey awarded a Burlington County high school a grade of D. Yet, the school’s student achievement composite was better than a number of schools that received a grade of C. In addition, its average SAT score was higher than that of the majority of the county’s high schools. The D grade resulted from a 1% decrease in its academic achievement composite over the four-year period, and did not reflect the school’s actual level of student achievement when compared to other institutions. Simply stated, the rating was unfair.

School quality is a complex subject. Unfortunately, the eyes of many readers never go beyond the simple letter grade or ranking. That’s not only a disservice to students, teachers and school officials, but also to the readers. School board members and many parents know that educational quality is a factor of the entire program, including the breadth of subjects addressed, the honors and Advanced Placement courses available to students, the special education programming, and school character and climate. These elements do not lend themselves to simple grades.

But let’s be realistic. High school rankings—whether New Jersey Monthly or InJersey—will not go away anytime soon. People love lists.  David Letterman knows that, and so do the folks who publish lifestyle magazines.

Which brings to mind another, much more venerable measure of school quality, the annual Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools. Released last month, the 45th annual survey measured public opinion on issues ranging from school safety to education reform initiatives, such as the Common Core State Standards. It also asked parents the perennial question: How would you rank the school your oldest child attends?  As in the past, most of the parents (this year, 71%) gave their local schools grades of A or B.

In the final analysis, perhaps our parents constitute the most-informed ranking system of them all!

These are my Reflections. I look forward to hearing yours.  Contact me at feinsodreflections@njsba.org.

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