WASHINGTON — For the past three years, prestigious Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda has been ranked Maryland’s No. 1 top-performing public high school — and one of the top 100 schools in the entire country.
But last week, when U.S. News & World Report released its updated list of the nation’s 6,000 “best high schools,” the Montgomery County school that had once dominated the list failed to make the cut.
In fact, Walt Whitman was one of just 11 percent of formerly “gold medal” schools to drop out of the rankings entirely, according to U.S. News data, prompting questions from WTOP readers and even some head-scratching by the school system itself.
In an interview, Walt Whitman principal Alan Goodwin told WTOP he was “surprised and dismayed” to see the school slide in the rankings.
But he stressed that the annual rankings are just one measure of excellence at the school, pointing to high student scores on the SATs and Advanced Placement exams.
“I certainly don’t think this ranking accurately reflects our standing,” Goodwin said.
Still, he didn’t question the study’s methodology, which has been criticized by other school systems in the past.
“If we didn’t meet their measure, then that’s something we will work on,” Goodwin said. “I’m certain that we can right this in the next few years.”
Behind the slide: 2 key factors
U.S. News’ chief data scientist Robert Morse told WTOP via email the school’s drop in the rankings resulted from two key factors: First, the data come from the 2014—2015 school year — the first year Maryland began rolling out PARCC tests to evaluate high school students’ math and English skills.
PARCC stands for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.
That switch led to a drop in English and math proficiency scores across Maryland — including at Walt Whitman.
For example, in 2016, the math and English proficiency rates at the school were 96 percent and 97 percent, respectively, according to an archived version of U.S. News’ 2016 rankings. After the PARCC switch, the school’s proficiency rates fell to 35 percent in math and 45 percent in English.
Goodwin pointed to the fact that Maryland high school students are required to take the PARCC tests but that the scores do not count against them for graduation, because the new tests are still being phased in across the state.
“I don’t like to use it as an excuse, but it is a fact that when you’re told that all you have to do is sit for a test, that it definitely changes some students’ attitudes toward the test,” Goodwin said.
But the drop in math and English proficiency, alone, doesn’t explain Whitman’s absence from the rankings.
When U.S. News’ evaluates student test scores, it factors in the performance of economically disadvantaged students, who tend to score lower. Per U.S. News’ methodology, schools with low numbers of disadvantaged students — measured by the number of students who receive free or reduced lunches — are expected to score better.
Walt Whitman failed to beat those expectations, Morse said.
Fewer than 3 percent of Walt Whitman’s nearly 2,000 students receive free or reduced lunches, according to U.S. News’ statistics, a smaller figure than many of its competitors. At Winston Churchill High, which came in at No. 1 in the state, about 5 percent of students receive free lunches. At Richard Montgomery High School, which ranked No. 5 on the list, 21 percent of students receive free or reduced lunches.
“With this in mind, Walt Whitman needed to score higher on its state assessments compared to its low level of students on free and reduced price lunch,” Morse said in an email. “Therefore, Walt Whitman did not pass this step, and was not ranked for the 2017 Best High Schools.”
Principal: ‘We shine in other ways’
It’s worth noting that other Montgomery County schools have dropped in and out of the rankings before.
When Walt Whitman earned a first-place finish in 2014, for example, it knocked Winston Churchill High School from the top spot and out of the U.S. rankings altogether.
This year, Winston Churchill returned as Maryland’s top school on the list.
There’s also been criticism of U.S. News’ rankings. Last year, a group of New York educators wrote an Op-Ed published in The Washington Post criticizing the potential use of “bad data” in the study.
So far, Goodwin said he has only received a few calls from concerned parents.
“I like to think they realize it’s just one ranking system, and that we shine in other ways,” he said.
For example, 94 percent of Walt Whitman students who take Advanced Placement exams pass them. That’s a higher passing rate than four of the top five Maryland schools on this year’s list — including first-place Winston Churchill, according to the U.S. News data.
“We didn’t measure up to this one, but we measure up to so many others,” Goodwin said. “Walt Whitman is a superior school and will continue to be one.”