Why schools moved up or down in the 2017 ‘Best High Schools’ rankings

The U.S. News Best High Schools rankings, released today, give national recognition to 6,041 top-performing public high schools in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. These schools were awarded gold, silver and bronze medals based on their students’ graduation rates, performance on state tests and college readiness. U.S. News teamed with North Carolina-based RTI International, a global nonprofit social science research firm, to produce the rankings.

Each year, U.S. News is asked why individual schools moved up or down in the rankings compared with previous years. There are many possible reasons schools’ ranks changed in the 2017 edition. The most common explanations are outlined below, followed by an analysis of how the new rankings compare with the 2016 edition.

1. Changes to the methodology used to rank the Best High Schools

2. Changes in relative performance on state tests

3. Changes in state assessment data

4. Changes in relative or absolute performance on college-level coursework

5. New medal winners

6. Suppression of state test results, missing state test data, changes in free and reduced-price lunch eligibility or lack of AP test results

1. Changes to the methodology used to rank the Best High Schools: U.S. News uses a four-step process to determine the Best High Schools; in the final step, a College Readiness Index is computed based on each school’s participation in Advanced Placement exams and how well students performed on those tests. This year, U.S. News and the College Board collaboratively developed a new tiebreaker to avoid ties in the numerical rankings when schools had the same unrounded CRI values, which was the case for the top 25 ranked schools in the 2017 rankings.

This new tiebreaker had a significant impact on schools ranked 1-25 and a small impact on schools tied further down the rankings.

The new tiebreaker was the percentage of 12th-graders in the 2014-2015 academic year who took AP exams and the percentage who passed those exams in at least four of the seven AP content areas. The tiebreaker measures the breadth of students who took and passed AP exams across multiple disciplines.

The AP content areas measured were English, Math & Computer Science, Sciences, World Languages & Culture, History and Social Sciences, Arts and AP Capstone. Students who took and passed exams in two or three areas were given partial credit — 50 percent and 75 percent, respectively. Those who took and passed AP exams in four of the seven AP content areas earned full credit. The percentage of students taking exams in multiple areas was weighted 25 percent and the percentage of students passing exams in multiple areas was weighted 75 percent to derive the final tiebreaker score.

High schools where the largest proportion of 12th-grade students in the 2014-2015 academic year took and passed AP tests in at least four AP content areas scored highest in the tiebreaker. The new tiebreaker was used to break ties among 297 schools — 61 gold medal schools and 236 silver medal schools. The College Board computed the tiebreaker.

In addition, this year’s Step 4 of the rankings methodology didn’t include International Baccalaureate test data. The International Baccalaureate Organization informed U.S. News in November 2016 that it was unable to supply U.S. News with IB data for 12th-grade students in 2014-2015 as it had in previous years.

For the 2017 Best High Schools rankings, this means that high schools that only use IB exams weren’t eligible for gold or silver medals. Like all high schools that pass Steps 1-3 of the rankings methodology, IB schools were still eligible for bronze medals. Schools that offer both IB and AP courses were eligible for gold and silver medals based on their AP exam performance if they passed Steps 1-3.

The lack of IB data affected the 2017 national rank of any school that was a gold or silver medal winner in the 2016 Best High Schools rankings and whose CRI value last year was based on IB data.

Another methodology-related factor is graduation rate. High schools were only allowed to pass Step 3 this year if their rounded graduation rate was 75 percent or greater. This is an increase from the 68 percent threshold used in the 2016 rankings. This threshold was based on the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which was passed in 2015 and is the successor to the No Child Left Behind Act. The law stipulates that states are required to provide additional resources to schools whose graduation rates are 67 percent or lower.

The 75 percent threshold used in the 2017 rankings is still lower than the national average graduation rate as reported by the National Center for Education Statistics, which was 83 percent in 2014-2015. U.S. News believes that the new 75 percent threshold is a valid standard that ensures that all ranked schools do not struggle to graduate students and that at least three-quarters of their students earn high school degrees.

Graduation rates are an important indicator of how well a school is succeeding for all its students. In future rankings, U.S. News will likely increase the threshold graduation rate needed to pass Step 3.

Schools without a graduation rate value were allowed to pass Step 3 to account for varying state rules regarding which high schools receive a calculated graduation rate, since each high school has limited control over this.

This increase in the graduation rate threshold meant that a greater number of schools didn’t pass Step 3 for the 2017 Best High Schools rankings. In total, 312 high schools that would otherwise have been awarded gold, silver or bronze medals failed to meet the 75 percent threshold compared with 190 schools not passing Step 3 last year.

U.S. News also changed the state rankings methodology this year to enable more highly qualified schools to be numerically ranked within their own states. This year for the first time in the Best High Schools rankings, some bronze medal winners were numerically ranked in their state. Bronze medal winners had to have a CRI value of greater than or equal to 10 to be numerically ranked in their state.

Overall the 2017 Best High Schools state rankings are based on whether a high school is nationally ranked gold, silver or bronze in their state and has a CRI value of greater than or equal to 10. This change increased the total number of high schools ranked in all states by 936. Previously, only nationally ranked gold and silver medal winners were numerically ranked in their state. Bronze medal schools with a CRI value of less than 10 and those without a CRI are listed alphabetically within their state.

2. Changes in relative performance on state tests: Some schools that were ranked in the 2016 Best High Schools rankings fell out of the 2017 rankings completely because they were no longer among the best-performing schools on their statewide tests — meaning that their overall student performance on state tests during the 2014-2015 academic year did not exceed statistical expectations (Step 1 of the rankings methodology) or the performance of their least-advantaged students was not equal to or better than the state average for least-advantaged students (Step 2 of the methodology).

If they did not pass both of these steps, schools were not eligible for a gold, silver or bronze medal.

3. Changes in state assessment data: The impact of these changes is described by RTI in the technical appendix:

Between 2013-14 and 2014-15, a number of states made changes to either their assessments, proficiency standards, and/or reporting practices which may have affected school ranking results this year compared to last year. In 2014-15, 30 states implemented new Common Core-aligned assessments that measure students’ college and career readiness (13 states implemented Smarter Balanced, nine implemented Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers [PARCC], and seven implemented state-specific assessments based on Common Core standards). Many of the states that implemented new tests in 2014-15 had changes made to the grade levels tested, courses areas tested, or proficiency levels used. …

Sixteen of the states with new assessments tested different grade levels than in the previous year. For example, eight of the nine states that implemented the PARCC assessment tested more grade levels than previously (Arkansas, Colorado, District of Columbia, Illinois, Mississippi, New Jersey, New Mexico, and Rhode Island). Of the 13 states that implemented Smarter Balanced assessments, one state tested fewer grade levels (Washington) and three changed from testing 10th-graders to testing 11th-graders (Connecticut, Hawaii, and Montana).

Fourteen of the states that implemented new tests had different proficiency levels used in 2014-15. For example, all nine of the states that implemented PARCC assessments increased the number of proficiency levels from three or four levels to five levels.

While Florida did not revamp their existing mathematics assessments or change proficiency standards for 2014-15, the state added an additional end-of-course mathematics assessment (Algebra II).

The 2016 rankings used the “final recommended” proficiency standards for Texas high schools. These are standards that the Texas Education Agency (TEA) identified as the preferred reporting standard for student proficiency. However, TEA has delayed implementing these standards; instead, TEA has reported “phase-in” standards in recent years. For this year’s rankings, the “phase-in 1” performance standards were used, which correspond to the 2014-15 school year.

4. Changes in relative or absolute performance on college-level coursework: Some schools may have moved either up or down in the 2017 rankings compared with last year because of how their 12th-grade class in 2014-2015 compared with the 2013-2014 class, in terms of participation in and performance on AP exams.

U.S. News determines the college readiness of each school by analyzing these data for the graduating class cohort in the most recent academic year available — in this case, the 12th-grade class in the 2014-2015 school year. This means U.S. News looked at whether these students took and passed any AP exams during their years at the school, up to and including their senior year.

Many schools’ ranks were affected because of changes in their CRI scores.

5. New medal winners: Some schools were new to the 2017 rankings because they passed Steps 1-3 of this year’s methodology but weren’t eligible for a gold, silver or bronze medal last year based on their performance.

Other high schools became eligible to be ranked for the first time in 2017 because they are relatively new schools. They may have had their first 12th-grade class graduate in 2014-2015, or the size of their graduating class may have grown enough to be included in the rankings.

In total, 1,928, or 32 percent, of the high schools that were awarded a gold, silver or bronze medal in the 2017 rankings were not ranked in 2016. Specifically, 36 of this year’s gold medal winners, 495 of the silver medal winners and 1,397 of the bronze medal winners were not ranked in 2016.

Overall, in the 2017 rankings, 29 percent of eligible high schools earned a medal.

6. Suppression of state test results, missing state test data, changes in free and reduced-price lunch eligibility or lack of AP test results: Some medal-winning schools that were top performers in terms of college readiness in 2016 weren’t eligible to be ranked in 2017 because their state blocked certain portions of their math and English state test results from being released publicly.

There were also schools that weren’t ranked in 2016 that may have been eligible for medals this year, but certain portions of their state test data were suppressed or missing. Data could have been suppressed by states for various reasons, including protecting the identities of certain students.

As noted in RTI’s technical appendix, “States where data suppression appears to have had a large impact on the results included Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Maryland, Michigan, Oklahoma, and Washington.”

Some states had big changes from 2013-2014 to 2014-2015 in the number of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, which is used as a factor in Step 1 of the Best High Schools methodology. The states affected include Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Louisiana, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The data U.S. News used on free and reduced-price lunches for each school in the 2017 Best High Schools rankings came from the U.S. Department of Education’s Common Core of Data public high school data set.

In addition, South Dakota schools weren’t eligible for gold or silver medals in 2017 because U.S. News could not use their AP data to determine their students’ level of college readiness (Step 4 of the methodology). South Dakota was the only state that did not give U.S. News permission to use its schools’ AP data. However, South Dakota schools still had the ability to earn bronze medals if they passed the first three steps of the methodology.

How the 2017 Best High Schools Rankings Compare With the 2016 Rankings

In total, 4,113, or 66 percent, of the high schools that were awarded a gold, silver or bronze medal in the 2016 Best High Schools rankings returned to the 2017 rankings as gold, silver or bronze medal winners. That means that 34 percent of the high schools that were ranked in 2016 were not ranked in 2017.

Of the schools that were gold medal winners in the 2016 rankings, 89.4 percent returned to the 2017 rankings as gold, silver or bronze medal winners. The vast majority of the 2016 gold medal winners — 74 percent — returned as gold in 2017.

Of the schools that were silver medal winners in the 2016 rankings, 73.3 percent returned to the 2017 rankings as gold, silver or bronze medal winners. More than half of the 2016 silver medal winners — 63 percent — returned as silver in 2017.

And of the schools that were bronze medal winners in the 2016 rankings, 58.5 percent returned to the 2017 rankings as gold, silver or bronze medal winners. More than half of the 2016 bronze medal winners — 53 percent — returned as bronze in 2017.

These rankings results show that the bronze medal schools were much less consistent in their year-to-year performance, especially when compared with the relatively high year-to-year consistency of the gold medal schools and, to a slightly lesser degree, the silver medal schools.

More from U.S. News

Photos: Top High Schools

How States Compare in the 2017 Best High Schools Rankings

How U.S. News Calculated the 2017 Best High Schools Rankings

Why Schools Moved Up or Down in the 2017 Best High Schools Rankings originally appeared on usnews.com

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