“Best high schools”? Awards? Rankings? Think again.

Here are some paragraphs from the district’s website:

Township High School District 214 schools are consistently ranked among the best in the state and the country. Most recently, all six of the district’s high schools were recognized by US News & World Report and The Washington Post.

US News and World Report annually ranks more than 21,000 of the nation’s high schools. On the 2015 list, all of District 214’s high schools were among the top 1,150 schools, earning either a gold or a silver medal in the rankings. This feat is achieved by about 13 percent of schools nationally. Out of the more than 600 open enrollment schools studied in Illinois, District 214’s high schools were among the top 42.

The Washington Post studied the nation’s high schools with a different set of criteria, assessing the level of academic rigor. All six high schools in District 214 were named among the “Most Challenging High Schools” in 2015, joining the top 11 percent of schools nationwide.

Sounds pretty great, doesn’t it?

In fact, looking at the U.S. News and World Report rankings for Illinois, Hersey is ranked 8th (behind #6 Stevenson, ahead of  #13 New Trier), Prospect is #21, Buffalo Grove #44, Rolling Meadows #58, Elk Grove #93, and Wheeling #114, out of 811 high schools rated in Illinois.

But now look at these two charts, taken from the state “report cards” (to which the district’s website handily links to directly).

These reports provide the results of the 11th grade SAT, categorizing the kids into four groups, those who meet or exceed grade-level norms, and those who are deficient to a greater or lesser degree.  (The latter two groups are euphemistically labelled “partially meets” and “approaching”; it’s more accurate to say “well below grade-level norms” and “below grade-level norms”.)

In the first table, I look at the percent of those 11th graders who meet or exceed grade-level norms, by high school and by demographic group, and compare them to the state averages.  (To state up-front, this is my own summary and I will be ready to correct if I’ve made transcription errors.)  Then, I color-code:  red for groups/schools which score below the state average, yellow for those which only score a bit above, less than 20%, and green for those who score above 20%.

report card analysis; own work

It’s plain to see that Prospect and Hersey score much better than state averages — but, then, they are the schools with the lowest ratio of low-income students and the lowest ratio of Hispanic students.

But as we move to the right, to schools with higher ratios of low-income students and Hispanic students, increasing numbers of boxes become yellow and red.  In ELA, Buffalo Grove’s Hispanic students do worse than Hispanic students statewide, and, when split by income level, low-income and non-low-income kids do only moderately better than their statewide peers (in this case, 10% and 16% respectively).  And the progression continues to even greater degrees for Meadows, Elk Grove, and Wheeling.

Even at the district level, while on an overall basis, 32% more students meet or exceed standards than statewide, only 12% of non-low-income and 16% of low-income students do, when compared to other non-low-income and low-income students, respectively.  With respect to Hispanic students, their ELA “meets/exceeds percent” is exactly the same as the state’s, and the math ratio is only 14% higher.

The next chart shows the lowest category only, so in reading the numbers, a lower number is better: fewer failing or near-failing students.  The meaning of the color-coding stays the same:  red is worse (that is, higher numbers) than the state average, yellow only moderately better (<20%) than the state.

Again, the further one moves to the right, the more yellow and red, and Prospect and Hersey’s success at keeping the well-below percentages down is hardly replicated.  Some of the numbers are very unsettling indeed:  across the district, 38% and 39% of low income students are well-below grade level at English and math, respectively, as are 37% and 38% of Hispanic students.  (The only reason why the math-low income combo is “green” is because that percentage is even worse statewide.)

To be clear, I make no claims about the appropriateness of these metrics.  Are the grade-level norms set at a level that measures the level of education necessary to be prepared to enter college after graduation and get a degree in engineering, or at the level of education necessary to be prepared to enter training for a skilled trade, and to manage the skills of adulthood, such as money management?

I am also not faulting the school district or the school administration.  This chart does not say anything about the quality of education provided by the six comprehensive schools.  One further presumes that resources allocated to Wheeling, for example, match or exceed those to Prospect.  Presumably, any deficiencies in teachers and staff are not something the district can remedy, to the extent that the most-skilled teachers/staff are most likely to pursue jobs at Prospect and Hersey for the satisfaction of teaching the “best” students, even if pay scales are equal at all schools.

Should the district be directing even more resources to Wheeling?  It’s possible that even this may not make a difference — and would be unfair to students at the other schools since there is no option to change schools to pursue a specialized program; as it is, Wheeling “offers all students a 21st century focus in STEM,” offering, for instance, a nanotechnology lab that students at other schools can’t access.  The school also provides student support via the AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) program, with help in organizational and study skills and extra encouragement for immigrant and other students who wouldn’t otherwise consider college.

To a considerable degree, this chart illustrates the fact that “the best” high school is largely determined by parents’ socioeconomic class, and that no amount of skillful administration can turn Wheeling into Prospect or Hersey.  And it’s self-perpetuating: families pay a premium for houses in the Prospect attendance area because they are motivated to have their kids succeed, and they push their kids to do so.

This chart also suggests that statistics such as the district’s boast that “93% of students go on to college” are inappropriate.  To be sure, part of this is an artifact of our American labelling of virtually any post-secondary education as “college,” even if it’s a certification program at Harper College, and that’s a whole ‘nother issue.  But to the extent that it’s simply not possible, or at any rate, not realistic, for a significantly-below-grade norms kid to “got to college,” that highlights the importance of ensuring that counselors work with all kids to ensure that they are prepared for life after high school, and, in particular, avoid counseling kids towards “college” as a default without providing them with an understanding of all their available options.

But the bottom line is that, any time you hear a school official boast of “high test scores” or other sorts of rankings, don’t be deceived into thinking that’s a result of superior school administration!

Wheeling High School

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