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Rankings: Recognizing the best students

By Jeremy Heyman

Section: Opinions

October 28, 2005

This past spring, Newsweek released its 2005 rankings of American public high schools. My alma mater, Gateway Senior HS, did not crack Newsweek.coms list of the top 1,042 public schools. While criticizing ones own school district may be tempting, I question the ranking system rather than my schools academics.

The schools are ranked solely on the number of Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) exams taken per graduating senior at a given school. Gateway High may not average the five or more AP exams per student at the top eleven schools, or even the 1.000 exams per student required to make the cut at 1,042. As a 2004 Gateway graduate, however, I am tremendously pleased with the education I received there, and I am unconvinced of the value of the Newsweek rankings.

The most obvious problem with the ranking system is that simply taking AP exams says nothing of student or school achievement. Some high schools force students enrolled in AP courses to take the corresponding AP exams;

on the other hand, many other schools, such as my own, allow students to choose whether they wish to invest the study time and 80-odd dollars required for each exam.

Indeed, at some schools with fairly large exam-to-student ratios, a large proportion of exams taken are not even passed with a score of 3 out of 5. For instance, some schools force all of their AP Chemistry students to take the examination, but with little success;

at some such schools, most students fail the exam, which is regarded as one of the more difficult AP exams.

At good old Gateway High, on the other hand, twelve students took the exam in 2004, with a 100 percent pass rate, including SIX fives and FIVE fours. That was the year I took AP Chemistry, and it was my teachers first year teaching the course at my school. In 2005, twenty students took the exam, again with a 100 percent pass rate, this time with TEN students earning a score of five and an additional six students receiving a four. It is probably reasonable to say that some top schools in the country can only dream of ten students receiving a five on the AP Chem exam in one year. The Newsweek rankings aim to recognize schools that bring out the best in their students, effecting high achievement across student bodies with a range of so-called intelligence levels, not simply getting high levels of achievement from extremely bright students. It seems that my school, and likely many other forgotten schools across the US, fit this bill.

Unlike some top schools, Gateway does not have a (possibly elitist?) track of classes restricted to those considered gifted from an IQ test. No, Gateway does something far more valuable for the education of its students than separating them according to some intelligence score;

rather, my school hired inspiring, knowledgeable, and friendly teachers. I was inspired to study Chemistry at Brandeis by my AP Chemistry teacher, Mr. Timothy Lattanzio, a man who expected a complete effort from his students, but not without putting in an even GREATER effort himself to assure that students would understand and appreciate the chemical phenomena and theories being studied. Like many of my peers, I was welcomed into the world of Calculus with AP Calculus taught by Mrs. Nancy Toman, a woman who was remarkably good at relating to students and teaching them calculus (plus, her husband is Buffo, the Worlds Strongest Clown, seriously). Such quality educators did not just teach students to a level of proficiency;

more than that, they taught students to understand and appreciate the material.
Ranking high schools by the average number of exams taken per student is like ranking a football team by the percentage of the schools students that showed up for the first day of try-outs;

it simply does not make sense (okay, maybe football is not a great analogy here at Brandeis, but my high school football team was ranked 20 in the US last year, so pardon the reference). Just as the football teams success depends on the game results produced by those who make the team, so too could a schools academic success be measured more accurately by at least focusing on the results of AP exams taken. Rather than an exam-to-student ratio, I suggest ranking using a ratio of very good scores (4 or 5) to students in the graduating class. Further, if high school ranking is to be done at all, it should not be based solely on even the results of AP and IB exams. Additional criteria could include percentage of entering ninth-graders who graduate in four years, as well as percentages of ninth-graders who enroll in a four-year college and who receive some post-secondary education.

If a ranking system like that proposed above were instituted, my high school may or may not make the list of top 100 or even top 1000 of the nations 27,468 public high schools (see Newsweek, May 16, 2005, The 100 Best High Schools in America), and the same may be said of countless other schools with inspiring, caring teachers that propel their students to achieve their full potential. Now in my second year at Brandeis, I have come to value my four years at Gateway for the extensive learning and dedicated and supportive teachers I had there, including Mr. Lattanzio, who is now one of my closest friends from high school and who continues to be a primary stimulus to my study of Chemistry as my future profession. After all, even such expanded criteria as suggested above would be unable to measure the overall quality of a schools teachers, the very intangibles that make education worth ones while at the end of the day.

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