Just before Delaware schools were set to open their doors for the 2023-24 school year, the latest national rankings looked to list the best public and charter high schools among them.
U.S. News & World Report compiled these rankings, coordinating with nonprofit research firm RIT International. Strong schools with high-achieving students lined their roster. And like many outlets across the country, Delaware Online/The News Journal reported on them.
But such rankings don’t give parents the full story.
Looking at just Delaware’s top 10, every school had a smaller percentage of economically disadvantaged children than the average across state enrollment. Six of those high schools had shares of lower-income students at less than half of the state’s rate, which is just over 25%. And of the three that are not charter, vo-tech or magnet schools, the district per-capita income runs about 19% higher on average than Delaware’s figures.
The top highs — the Charter School of Wilmington, Cab Calloway School of the Arts and Newark Charter School — have 4%, 8.3% and 7.8% lower-income students respectively. The school on the list with the highest proportion was Sussex Technical High School, in Georgetown, with about 22% of students at economic disadvantage.
Additionally, at six of these top schools, students with disabilities make up 8.5% or less of total enrollment, compared to nearly 17.5% attending public schools statewide. The top school comes in just over 1%, according to state data.
"What they're really doing is measuring opportunity," Josh Cowen, a professor of education policy at Michigan State University, told the Detroit Free Press about rankings missing inequities.
U.S. News & World: Ranking Delaware's public & charter high schools. See who topped the list
Digging into U.S. News rankings 2023-24
Delaware had 56 public high schools inside U.S. News' almost 17,700 ranked and nearly 25,000 reviewed schools. A few schools didn’t make the rankings, alongside any of the state’s private institutions.
Some schools are simply not intended to serve every student, made more rigorous by design. Conrad Schools of Science and Cab Calloway School of the Arts, for example, are both magnet schools. Vo-tech schools also require application, with primary criteria often including attendance and grades.
But overall, high-ranking schools tend to be in wealthier communities, have better resources, hold stronger tax bases.
According to MSU's Cowen, many rankings like these fail to take into account the kind of resources available in such communities to help raise student achievement on state assessments and encourage students into advanced courses.
"These are high, high income areas, but also highly saturated with what I call human capital,” he said. “Very high parental education level, lower crime rates ... investments in infrastructure.”
Seemingly looking to address such criticism that rankings favor wealthy areas, U.S. News changed how it ranked high schools in 2019, the Free Press reported. The change shifted the emphasis from performance on Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams to other measures, including graduation rates and performance on state assessments.
According to U.S. News, the rankings take the following indicators into account:
College readiness (30%): This indicator takes into account "the number of 12th grade students in the 2020-2021 academic year who took at least one AP or IB test by the end of their senior year" divided by the total number of 12th grade students at the school and "the number of 12th grade students in the 2020-2021 academic year who took and earned a qualifying score" on an AP or IB tests divided by the total number of 12th grade students at the school. A 3 or higher counts as a qualifying score on the AP test and a 4 or higher counts on IB. Some criticism around rankings like this stem from the fact that not all schools have the resources to offer AP or IB programs, though U.S. News writes that "adjustments were made" so that schools with zero AP or IB classes "would not score significantly worse than schools with very few APs and IBs."
College curriculum (10%): This index is also calculated using AP and IB scores, looking at how many of those advanced courses students took and the proportion of qualifying scores they received. Brooks wrote that "an abundance of schools offering limited or no AP or IB exams still placed in the top third of the national rankings."
State assessment proficiency (20%): This indicator scores students on proficiency in state assessments in math, reading and science. U.S. News used either data from 2018-19 tests or 2020-21 tests, depending on the proportion of students who participated due to the pandemic. Using assessments to grade school quality is also often criticized because scores often resemble a measure of poverty.
State assessment performance (20%): In this indicator, U.S. News measures total assessment scores "compared with what U.S. News predicted for a school with its demographic characteristics in its state." In this case, the organization writes, "schools performing best on this ranking indicator are those whose assessment scores far exceeded U.S. News' modeled expectations."
Underserved student performance (10%): This measure looks at how Black, Hispanic and low-income students score on state assessments compared "with the average for non-underserved students among schools in the same state," according to U.S. News.
Graduation rate (10%): U.S. News measured the proportion of students who entered high school in the 2017-18 school year and graduated four years later, in 2021.
As Cowen sees it, there's nothing wrong with making information about schools publicly available — but U.S. News framework isn't aimed at improving policy.
"They're not talking about equity," Cowen said. "They're talking about just a leafy neighborhood you should aspire to be."
Have a story? Kelly Powers covers race, culture and equity for the USA TODAY Network's Northeast Region and Delaware Online, with a focus on education. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (231) 622-2191, and follow her on Twitter @kpowers01.
This article originally appeared on Delaware News Journal: U.S. News & World Report school rankings mask inequities, experts say