Ranking anything is, by definition, an invitation to controversy.
But tell a town like York that its high school isn’t one of the best in Maine? Let’s just say U.S. News & World Report has some serious explaining to do.
“We’re not investing a lot of money into our lawyers looking into it,” York school Superintendent Debra Dunn said last week in the wake of local news coverage suggesting that’s exactly what the York School Committee wants her to do.
Rather, Dunn said, she’s drafting a letter (not her first) to the online magazine and plans to run it past the school attorney before sending it via certified mail “to give it some clout.”
All of this because U.S. News & World Report, which for the past six years has ranked every high school in every state in the country, keeps giving York High School an “NA” – meaning Not Available – under its math score.
Thus York is deprived of its chance to shine along with the Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone, Yarmouth High School, Falmouth High School, Cape Elizabeth High School …
The logical reaction to such a slight would be to shrug it off and file it under “no big deal.” In this age of rankings mania, what’s one more list by a magazine that, in Dunn’s view, “must have all these little grunions” that scour each state’s education website for data that may or may not reflect which schools are the best and which, shall we say, lack a certain something?
(My favorite example of rankings run amok: In February, Newsweek/Daily Beast announced it was scrapping its 7-year-old “Top 50 Rabbis” because the annual list “started to be over-legitimized. People simply took it too seriously.” Oy vey!)
U.S. News & World Report has become all about lists since it folded its 67-year-old print magazine in 2010. Now, in addition to its online magazine, its only hard-copy publications are the much anticipated annual rankings of colleges and universities, along with other reports on hospitals, nursing homes and, alas, the nation’s nearly 22,000 high schools.
Early on, York High School fared pretty well in the high school sweepstakes, winning U.S. News & World Report’s “bronze” designation in 2009 and “silver” status in 2010 and 2011. But then, starting in 2012 and continuing through 2013, York dropped inexplicably to the dreaded “unranked” category due apparently to that sore thumb of an “NA” in the math column.
And with the 2014 rankings scheduled to come out next week, fears are rampant that they’ll get dissed again.
“They must have a reason in their methodology,” Dunn said. “But we’ve read the methodology, all of us have, and we just can’t uncover it.”
No big deal, you say? Try telling that to York High School Principal Robert Stevens.
“I’ve been crucified for it,” Stevens said in an interview Friday. “The perception of the public is that we’re slipping.”
Which, rest assured, they are not. In fact, when the Maine Department of Education launched its own controversial “report cards” for the state’s public schools last spring, York was one of only 10 high schools that received an A.
But with such success comes pride. And with pride comes sensitivity to insult. And with sensitivity to insult comes, in this case, a lengthy discussion by the York School Committee earlier this month about pushing back – with lawyers, if necessary – against U.S. News & World Report’s failure to recognize York High School for the educational gem it is.
(“It’s nice to have the budget done to get back to this,” said School Committee member Marilyn Zoto, as quoted in the York Weekly.)
Enter Robert Morse, director of data research for U.S. News & World Report. Also known as the guy who compiles not only the high school rankings, but also the annual “America’s Best Colleges” report.
Contacted while traveling Friday, Morse said he wouldn’t be able to explain York’s “unranked” status in detail until he gets back to his office Monday and dissects the data.
But the criteria behind the rankings are complicated – they range from basic test scores, to the number of kids on free and subsidized lunches, to how well special education students are meeting expectations. So when Morse finishes his data dive, there’s no telling what deficiencies he might uncover.
“It isn’t as simple as saying that one field is labeled ‘NA’ on our website,” Morse said. “The explanation is going to be much more complex than saying that.”
Morse said this is hardly the first time a community has complained about its place on U.S. News & World Report’s list. And the fact that a school doesn’t win a medal to hang in its entryway (about 25 percent do), he stressed, does not mean it’s a bad school.
But he gets the negative reaction.
“People are paying high (property) taxes to support their schools,” Morse said. “They have, to use a sports term, skin in the game.”
And of course, “Some communities have more activist parents than others.”
Amen to that, says Principal Stevens.
“Some parents put up a website on social media at one point,” Stevens said. “They were very angry about it.”
Then there’s the local budget committee.
“They look at (U.S. News & World Report’s Maine rankings) and they say, ‘Hey, how come we’re paying the same amount of money per pupil as Yarmouth and Falmouth and Cape Elizabeth, but we’re not getting the same results?’”
In other words, Stevens needs this like a hole in the head.
“Who are (U.S. News & World Report) to set up these arbitrary criteria as to whether or not a school is effective?” he asked. “Based on what?”
For better or worse, Morse promised, that question will be answered forthwith. Still, he noted, the new rankings will be out on April 22, and York, we can only hope, will be restored to its rightful place in the upper echelon of Maine’s public education system.
Or they could get another “NA.”
So here’s my suggestion, good citizens of York. Do what dozens of disgruntled colleges have done in recent years and simply ignore U.S. News & World Report altogether.
For that matter, declare a boycott of rankings in general, tell Superintendent Dunn to forget about that lawyer-vetted letter and get on to more important matters – like making sure your kids do their homework.
“That sounds good to me,” Dunn said.
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: