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It's the student, not the school

In the increasingly competitive universe of K-12 education, reaching No. 1 can be an all-consuming pursuit. Principals, parents and students love being at the top of the numbers game — especially when admission to a good college is at stake.

Johnny has a 5.2 weighted GPA! Sarah's SAT is in the top 10 percentile!

Newsweek gave administrators and families in 100 high schools across the country more to brag about a few days ago with the release of its annual "America's Top Public High Schools" list. Among those ranked: the School for Advanced Studies in Miami (No. 15) and Hillsborough High School in Tampa (No. 46).

Barbara Stambaugh, guidance counselor for the Center for Advanced Technologies at Lakewood High in St. Petersburg (ranked No. 24), said her school uses the ranking "somewhat as a selling point" to families.

"The fact that it's happened three years in a row for us is pretty substantial," Stambaugh said.

But here's the reality of college admissions: What matters is the student's performance, not where that performance took place. A bumper sticker or marquee that boasts "Top 100 Newsweek High School" is all well and good for morale and local pride. But having reported on higher education for the past three years, I know this much: The ranking is not going to improve a student's chances of getting into college. Colleges simply don't care.

Steve Farmer, associate provost and director of admissions for UNC-Chapel Hill, told me he's only "vaguely aware" of the Newsweek list.

"The general rule of thumb about ratings is, let the buyer beware," he said. “We're not admitting schools to our colleges. We're admitting students, and looking at students individually is more important than looking at the school they came from."

The Newsweek list is particularly dubious because it is based on a single measurement stick, the Challenge Index, created by Washington Post education columnist Jay Mathews. It is simply a ratio: how many Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams students took, divided by the number of graduating seniors. It doesn't even matter how well the students do on the tests. What matters is that they took them at all.

For example, roughly 600 such tests were taken this year by 160 juniors and seniors enrolled in the Center for Advanced Technologies, a math/science/technology magnet program.

Reflecting a national movement, Mathews devised the formula to encourage more high schools to push their students to take the college-level AP courses and exams.

Hillsborough High principal William T. Orr pushes his students, most of whom aren't enrolled in the IB program, to take AP classes because he believes it better prepares them for college. "They are exposed more to how to acquire knowledge," Orr said. "It simulates a college classroom."

But just because you come from a high school where lots of students take AP exams does not mean you individually are ready for college. Heck, it doesn't even mean you took a single class or exam. College officials know this.

"The high school ranking plays no role in our selection progress," said University of Florida spokesman Steve Orlando. "You could have taken AP courses at the No. 1 ranked school or the No. 300 ranked school."

While admissions officers might be interested to know how many AP offerings a school has, and how many of those classes an applicant took, a magazine ranking (and one that no doubt drives sales, by the way) means little. Sure, some high schools have better reputations among admissions folks. After all, they often travel the state visiting schools and over time get a sense of which ones have stronger curriculum and college prep. But that reputation comes from more than just one measure. It comes from what they see firsthand.

"We have a lot more information available to us about high schools than any magazine can give us," UNC's Farmer said. He and his admissions staff can track a high school's demographic information, standardized test results, and how many students actually pass the AP exams.

Orr understands that colleges might not pay much attention to high school rankings. But for Hills- borough High, the Newsweek list serves as a constant challenge to boost AP and IB exam participation. Only a quarter of Orr's 2,000 or so students are enrolled in the IB program. In the five years since he became principal, AP participation by the other 75 percent has increased by 460 percent.

When Orr told me that, I thought, "Awesome." Truly, it is a testament to Hillsborough's dedication in making sure students are prepared for an academic career beyond high school. It is a testament to how much students there are pushing themselves to be better, smarter. That is an achievement that surpasses any ranking. If a top-100 list serves as your motivator, so be it. Whatever works, right?

But I know how numbers-obsessed parents and students can be. I just hope those whose high school made the Newsweek list don't get blinded by the bragging rights of attending a high school that makes the list.

UF, it's worth noting, got 27,000 applications this year for 6,400 freshman spots. Orlando has a board in his office that tracks such statistics. Numbers like "Fall 2008 incoming freshman GPA, 4.2, weighted; and average SAT, 1292; average ACT, 28.3." Nowhere on his stats sheet is "Top 10 Newsweek high schools."

Shannon Colavecchio covers politics and higher education from the Times/Herald bureau in Tallahassee. She can be reached at or (850) 224-7263.

It's the student, not the school 06/13/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 13, 2009 4:30am]
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