No metro-east high school made U.S. News & World Report’s list of top ranked high schools in Illinois — but that isn’t a fair reflection of the schools’ quality, according to local educators.
“It is difficult for me to comment on reports such as this,” said O’Fallon High School Superintendent Darcy Benway. “The magazine has cherrypicked measurements and indicators of success that don’t seem to favor local schools, but there are a thousand other variables — percentage going on to college, extracurricular offerings and participation, Illinois State scholars ... dual-credit opportunities, ACT average, etc. — that, if substituted, would change the rankings accordingly,” she said.
U.S. News & World Report recently released its annual listing of the best high schools in the nation. The top-ranked schools in Illinois numbered 97, and the top 10 were all in Chicago or its suburbs. Another 74 received a “bronze medal” listing, but were not ranked. Those included Edwardsville, Marissa and O’Fallon high schools. That left 503 Illinois high schools that didn’t qualify for either list.
To create the rankings, U.S. News & World Report began with 28,561 public high schools across the country, and eliminated small schools with fewer than 15 students in their graduating class. That knocked out nearly 9,000 schools nationally.
Then the high schools were ranked in four phases, testing not only how well they served college-bound students, but all students, according to U.S. News’ statements.
“A high school education is imperative for success in both college and a career, and a school’s graduation rate is a key indicator of whether students are being effectively prepared for both paths,” said Anita Narayan, managing education editor at U.S. News.
To be ranked, high schools needed to perform better than statistically expected for students across the state on standardized tests. Illinois is in the process of transitioning from years of the Prairie State Achievement Exam to PARCC, the new test begun last year for students at all grade levels.
U.S. News selected the schools with the top 10 percent of reading and math assessment scores to automatically be selected for the list, while eliminating the bottom 10 percent. The rest were passed to phase two, where scores for minority and low-income students were compared to the state averages. Only those that scored better than average for their state passed.
New this year: graduation rates had to meet or exceed 68 percent in order to be considered a top-performing high school. That meant 68 percent of ninth-graders received a diploma four years later, not just the percentage of seniors who finished the year. According to the methodology statement from U.S. News, this marks the first time that graduation rates have been part of the equation of any ranking of this scale.
The schools that survived to the fourth phase were judged on their students’ college readiness. For this, the magazine relied on Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate tests. Both programs offer college-level courses at high schools: If a student takes an AP class and passes the test at the end of the year — which costs $92 to take, paid by families — the student receives college credit for that class.
A high school education is imperative for success in both college and a career, and a school’s graduation rate is a key indicator of whether students are being effectively prepared for both paths.
Anita Narayan, U.S. News & World Report
U.S. News determined the percentage of high school seniors who took at least one of these advanced courses and did well on the test to determine college readiness.
That likely weighted the list toward charter and magnet schools, which comprised many of the top 20 schools in Illinois. First on the list was Northside College Preparatory High School, a Chicago “selective enrollment” school focused on physics, constitutional law and technology where most of the classes are honors or AP level and students can study abroad during high school.
Others in the top 10, such as Young Magnet High School in Chicago, have an AP participation rate of 85 percent. Lane Technical High School is a college preparatory “selective enrollment” magnet high school, as is Lindblom Math and Science Academy and Phoenix Military Academy — all public schools operated in the Chicago area.
Of the schools that were not magnet or charter schools, Adlai Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, ranked the highest. Approximately 80 percent of Adlai Stevenson students take AP classes. By comparison, Belleville West has a participation rate of 16 percent. Edwardsville High School has a participation rate of about 12 percent, and O’Fallon High School and Belleville East High are about 5 percent.
U.S. News’ top high school in the nation was the School for the Gifted and Talented in Dallas, Texas, as it has been for the last five years.
Variables left behind
That’s one of the problems with relying on these lists, according to local educators. Madison County Regional Superintendent Robert Daiber said area schools don’t “work well into the formula” used by U.S. News & World Report.
High school superintendents took issue with that formula, and the conclusions it implies about the quality of metro-east high schools.
Benway pointed out that nearly 14 percent of the students served at O’Fallon High School have special needs. “Is it realistic to compare schools that serve their entire community of learners and stakeholders by offering a vast range of courses for the most severely disabled students up through the most gifted, to a charter or magnet school where students ‘apply’ and are handpicked?” Benway said. “The answer is obvious.”
“Why did the report choose the variables they did and how have the creators of the report determined those variables to be the correct ones to measure high school success?” she said.
Belleville District 201 Superintendent Jeff Dosier agreed. “Magnet schools are called magnet schools for a reason. They take students who are already high-achieving and work with them to make them even better students. It’s not surprising to me that magnet schools are already high on that list.”
Instead, Dosier said, parents should look to the state school report card, which includes a variety of test scores, demographics, financial information, test scores, achievement gaps and other data about their child’s high school.
Why did the report choose the variables they did and how have the creators of the report determined those variables to be the correct ones to measure high school success?
Darcy Benway, O’Fallon District 203 superintendent
“I think parents can look to those school report cards for the best answers,” he said.
Benway said the OTHS graduating class of 2015 included 12 military academy appointments, 112 Illinois State Scholars, 29 Prairie State Achievement Awards, six National Merit commended students, one National Achievement Scholarship “outstanding participant,” 147 IHSA Scholarship Achivement Award winners, 190 National Honor Society members and $35 million in scholarships awarded.
In addition, she said, the class of 2016 includes two “Seal of Bi-Literacy” recipients and 20 seals of commendation toward bi-literacy in world languages. This year 15 Future Business Leaders of America students qualified for the national rankings, and Air Force Junior ROTC students at O’Fallon High completed more than 5,000 hours of community service.
The school offers 26 athletic teams, 68 clubs and activities and its music program is the equivalent of third in the state, Benway said.
“How many of the ‘best’ schools listed in the report have a transition house to serve special-needs students?” Benway asked. “Has anyone from this magazine ever talked to anyone at OTHS, much less had a site visit to gain any real perspective about the students we serve and the vast amount of programming provided to serve them? ... OTHS is an outstanding high school that successfully serves students, despite whether it was recognized according to the indicators used in U.S. News & World Report.”
As far as AP classes go, which can result in college credit for the class, Dosier said that District 201 has recently become involved in the Equal Opportunity Schools Project, aimed at improving participation in advanced placement classes among minority students and students from low-income backgrounds.
“We’re pretty confident it’s going to make a difference in providing equitable opportunities to encourage students to take advanced classes,” Dosier said.
At a glance
These are the top 20 Illinois High Schools according to U.S. News & World Report.
- 1. Northside College Preparatory High School, Chicago
- 2. Payton College Preparatory High School, Chicago
- 3. Young Magnet High School, Chicago
- 4. Jones College Prep High School, Chicago
- 5. Adlai Stevenson High School, Lincolnshire
- 6. Lane Technical High School, Chicago
- 7. Deerfield High School, Deerfield
- 8. Phoenix Military Academy, Chicago
- 9. Lindblom Math and Science Academy, Chicago
- 10. Hinsdale Central High School, Hinsdale
- 11. Prospect High School, Mt. Prospect
- 12. John Hersey High School, Arlington Heights
- 13. Evanston Township High School, Evanston
- 14. Lincoln Park High School, Chicago
- 15. Glenbrook South High School, Glenview
- 16. Buffalo Grove High School, Buffalo Grove
- 17. Highland Park High School, Highland Park
- 19. Lake Forest High School, Lake Forest
- 20. Brooks College Prep Academy, Chicago
Source: U.S. News & World Report