Ranking Our High Schools
Check out profiles of Montgomery County high schools, and rankings across several performance categories. Plus: How do county schools stack up in the national rankings?
Local Reactions to National Rankings
Just what makes a high school great depends on whom you ask—and how you crunch the numbers. When a school is favorably ranked, it can be cause for celebration. When a school slips, it can raise questions among parents.
“I try to take it all in stride, quite frankly,” says Kimberly Boldon, the principal at Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville, which ranked No. 2 in Maryland and No. 106 nationally in U.S. News & World Report’s 2017 listing of “Best High Schools.” Schools must serve all kids, and it’s hard for the data to reflect the breadth of the programs provided, says Boldon, who did not promote the U.S. News results this year.
Still, she says, the results boost morale: “It’s nice to get a pat on the back.”
Principal Alan Goodwin of Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda says he typically doesn’t express too much interest in the rankings. However, this spring he sent out an email when the school didn’t make the U.S. News list. Despite high scores on the SAT and Advanced Placement tests, Goodwin explained that Whitman did not reach a threshold for the two state pilot Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests that were added to the formula.
Some students didn’t take the PARCC tests seriously because they knew the score wouldn’t count toward their graduation, Goodwin says. “They would graduate anyway, so all they had to do was participate in the test,” he says. Goodwin told parents in an email: “I am confident that our students will perform on future tests in the manner to which you and I are accustomed.”
Parent reaction was “surprisingly refreshing”—out of six emails he received, only one expressed concern, suggesting that property values might fall, Goodwin says. “I responded to that parent and said you must keep these things in perspective.”
The methodology for rankings sometimes changes, so it can be tricky for administrators to manage expectations. Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda was fourth in Maryland and 148th nationally on the U.S. News ranking in 2017, but a few years ago it didn’t make the list. Principal Jennifer Baker says she was surprised there was a change in the criteria. “There were some parents who wondered why we weren’t on the [earlier] list, and we explained it to those who asked,” says Baker, who takes the results with a “grain of salt” because they rely on statistics.
Changes in criteria make it hard to form comparisons year to year, and there are shortfalls in how the lists are presented. For instance, some rankings include magnet public schools that have selective admissions on the same list as those with open enrollment, says Sid Groeneman, the head of Groeneman Research & Consulting, a Bethesda company that specializes in opinion, policy and marketing surveys. The overall focus is heavy on academic achievement, but extracurricular programs and culture might be more important to some families. The formulas assign certain weight to certain components that may not be universally agreed upon, he says.
“Some people naively assume that because it’s complex, it must be rigorous and a true measure of what’s ‘best.’ There are a lot of assumptions that go into that complex formula,” Groeneman says. “Unless you buy into all the assumptions, you might not agree with that definition of best that is invented in the formula.”
And sometimes mistakes are made. In June, The Washington Post had to correct its 2017 America’s Most Challenging High Schools list after the IDEA charter schools network acknowledged that it mistakenly submitted erroneous data that incorrectly boosted the rankings for several of its schools.
Parents at Bullis School in Potomac definitely check the rankings, but most aren’t hung up on them, says Shannon Priddy, former executive board president of the Bullis Parents Association. “I don’t think anyone is going to pull their kids out if they come in a little lower on something,” she says.
Choosing a school is more about fit, says Connie Mitchell, spokeswoman for Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda, which doesn’t pitch its data to the organizations that compile the lists. “We don’t feel that rankings help because the comparisons don’t always tell the whole story,” she says.
Adds Bob Farrace, spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals in Reston, Virginia: “Schools are complex organizations that don’t easily lend themselves to neat ratings and rankings. What matters most is how well the school serves its local community.”
*Most recent data at press time
News outlets and websites in the high school ratings game use different methodologies to arrive at their lists. U.S. News & World Report first looks at students’ scores on state proficiency tests, particularly those of economically disadvantaged students, compared to state averages. U.S. News also considers graduation rates and participation and performance on AP tests. Newsweek considers state proficiency test scores, college acceptance and enrollment, and participation and performance on SAT, ACT, AP, IB and AICE tests, as well as the number of counselors at the school and participation in dual-enrollment programs. Newsweek relies on schools to provide most of the data, and about one in four surveyed schools provided data for the 2016 rankings. Niche.com ranks public and private schools based on several factors, including SAT and ACT scores, racial and economic diversity, and survey responses from parents and students about the overall school experience. The Washington Post only takes into account AP, IB and AICE test participation relative to the size of the school’s senior class.