Before You Panic About Your High School Ranking, Find Out What the Data Really Says.

Jun 1, 2017 12:00:00 AM

by Elizabeth Dabney

Oh, the angst that could be prevented by a bit of accurate data. One of my neighbors recently posted to our community Facebook group lamenting about US News and World Report’s best high school rankings. Our local high school in suburban Maryland was unranked and given a “college-readiness index” of less than 50. (They base college readiness on the school's Advanced Placement participation rate and how well students do on those tests.) The post set off a firestorm of angry comments. Some played the blame game—“It’s the parents’ fault! No, it’s the teachers’ fault! No, it’s the students’ fault!” Some threatened to move to a nearby town with a better ranked high school. Some parents came to the high school’s defense, only to be met with the crying face emoji. This conversation would have been very different—and I believe less vitriolic—had my neighbors not waited for a national magazine to determine how our high school ranked, but instead had accessed the high school’s annual report card and used that data to draw their own conclusions about the quality of the school. Maryland is actually one of the few states that provide data in each high school’s annual report card on the percentage of graduates who enroll in postsecondary institutions, in addition to other important data. Had my neighbors looked at this information, they would have seen that recent graduating classes from the school have enrollment rates of 80 percent or more within 16 months of graduating high school. And the percentage of graduates enrolling in college has risen steadily over the last five years. The report card also includes data on the number of recent graduates enrolled in a Maryland public college who have completed a year of college credit within 24 months of enrollment. Instead of virtual finger-pointing and hand-wringing, my neighbors could have had a data-informed conversation about whether or not students in our local high school really are college ready. They could explore questions like:
  • Why did less than 75 percent of the graduating class of 2015 enroll in college within 12 months of graduating? Did they need additional time to prepare for college?
  • Why do fewer male high school graduates enroll in college than female graduates? Do male students need more or different support to get them college ready?
  • How can we close the college-going gap among students of different racial and ethnic groups?
  • Why do less than 60 percent of our high school graduates who enrolled in a Maryland public college within 16 months of high school graduation complete only one year of college credit within 24 months of enrollment?
Empowered with this data, my neighbors could work in partnership with the local high school to address concerns and hold education leaders accountable for ensuring students are prepared for success after graduation. While developing their plans under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), states have the opportunity to include indicators of college and career readiness, like postsecondary enrollment rates, into their accountability systems and publicly report these indicators in school report cards—the central public place for all things school data. Most states already collect this information, and ESSA provides an opportunity for states to report it to communities, educators and families to initiate meaningful changes. Not only will it damper the type of online venting that I experienced (I’m an optimist!), but it will spark more informed conversations and decisions to better support student success. That’s something that we can all agree on.

Elizabeth Dabney

Elizabeth Dabney is the director for research and policy analysis at the Data Quality Campaign (DQC). She leads DQC’s research and policy analysis work in support of the organization’s goal to help ensure success for all students through access to and meaningful use of high-quality data. Elizabeth draws on more than 15 years of experience in education research. Before joining DQC in 2012, she worked at research firms, including Westat in Maryland and Metis Associates in New York. On the weekends, you can find Elizabeth practicing yoga and taking classes that let her explore her creative spirit.

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