U.S. News & World Report recently released its ranking of the top high schools in the country. Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland, was the only school in the state to make it into the top 100.

U.S. News & World Report recently released its ranking of the top high schools in the country. Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland, was the only school in the state to make it into the top 100.

The U.S. News & World Report just released its list ranking the best high schools in the U.S. Several schools in the Washington region made the cut, including Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia and Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland.

But Montgomery County Public Schools has raised questions about the accuracy of the list, citing concerns over missing data.

The ranking takes into account college readiness, proficiency in math and reading, standardized test scores, graduation rate, performance of minority students and 12th graders’ participation in Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams.

What does the U.S. News ranking — and other similar rating systems — tell parents about school quality? And what information does it fail to capture?

Produced by Cydney Grannan and Margaret Barthel


  • Jenny Abamu Education reporter, WAMU 88.5 @JennyAbamu
  • Jennifer Bell-Ellwanger President and CEO, Data Quality Campaign; @jennbellell
  • Derek Turner Communications Director, Montgomery County Public Schools; @MCPS


  • 12:00:12

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. Later in the broadcast we'll talk about a new program in Fairfax County that tries to ease the reunification process between migrant children from Central America and their family members in the U.S. But first, U.S. News & World Report released its rankings of the best high schools in America last week. Joining me in studio is Jennifer Bell-Ellwanger. She is the President and CEO of Data Quality Campaign, a nonprofit focused on education data and policy use. Jennifer, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:00:47

    JENNIFER BELL-ELLWANGERGood morning, Kojo. Thank you for having me.

  • 12:00:49

    NNAMDIJoining us by phone is Jenny Abamu. She is the Education reporter for WAMU 88.5. Jenny, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:00:56

    JENNY ABAMUThank you for having me, Kojo.

  • 12:00:58

    NNAMDIJennifer, the U.S. News & World Report lists ranks over 17,000 high schools across the country. What's the idea behind the ranking like this?

  • 12:01:07

    BELL-ELLWANGERSo the U.S. News & World Report ranking is compiled with using publically available data from sources like the Common Core of Data, which is a federal data set. And that what they really want to do is to think about how do you get information in the hands of families. And the U.S. News & World Report, which is a trusted source, complies information on taking and passing advanced placement exams, math, reading, proficiency rates, and graduation rates to give folks a sense of how schools are doing. But I would say that that is really just the beginning of the conversation, not the only one stop shop.

  • 12:01:49

    NNAMDIWhat factors did the U.S. News's list consider when creating these rankings?

  • 12:01:53

    BELL-ELLWANGERYeah. I just mentioned them. They look at some college and career readiness indicators like taking and passing advance placement exams, but also the math proficiency rates as well as graduation rates.

  • 12:02:09

    NNAMDIJenny, several Washington area schools ranked high on the list, although only two made it into the top 100. Thomas Jefferson High School in Alexandria, Virginia was ranked at number four. And Montgomery County's Walt Wittman High School was ranked at 93. Jenny, what do you think about these rankings?

  • 12:02:26

    ABAMUWell, I mean, there's a lot of criticism about ranking schools, right? Because it depends on what you consider is the most important. And U.S. News & World Report, they've had their own critics, people who have said, you know, their formula has changed from year to year and that formula really does a lot to indicate how schools will perform. And so, I think it was a couple -- over the last year -- before you saw like basis schools, which was a charter network and those schools dominated at top rankings and that was because of the way the formula was created.

  • 12:03:02

    ABAMUAnd so the structure of the formula is always going to be something that people criticize. And I think it's something that people should really pay attention to because if you're looking at rankings and you're not looking at the formula, you may not be looking at rankings that reflect what's important to you. And so I think that some of the adjustments that they've done or some of the things that they've changed and even just kind of how they've tried to include social mobility a bit more in the rankings is significant to just note and to think about. And just consider as times goes on, I do imagine that there will be more iterations of formula changes etcetera as people give them feedback.

  • 12:03:37

    NNAMDIJennifer Bell-Ellwanger, comparing schools across districts let alone state lines must cause some problems in terms of data uniformity. How is this information standardized in a way that's fair?

  • 12:03:50

    BELL-ELLWANGERSo I think that the U.S. News & World Report, which is what you're referring to that takes 17,000 schools across the United States and looks at their data. And that is why they are using some common factors of information that's collected from the various states. So to kind of put them all on one level, but as Jenny mentioned what's most important is that this is the beginning of a conversation for families. It's easy to access, easy to read. But then we really need to dig in deeper and see what other information will help you make a decision about a school that you're interested in.

  • 12:04:27

    NNAMDIHere is Alton in Washington D.C. Alton, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:04:35

    ALTONHi, Kojo. I got a general comment about the rankings. I have a personal experience at UC Hastings where we fell in the rankings. Now, I'm not talking about local or high school. But for all, you know, U.S. rankings I find to be sometimes a little bit political and sometimes if the school -- this is more my comment. If the school does not adhere to certain principles to get better in the rankings and they fall behind in the rankings, example UC Hastings. Then it diminishes the capacity of students in the future to go there, because if the school's falling in the rankings, then they might pass it over for another school. And I think it's generally not helpful to students' decision in choosing ultimately, you know, college or, you know, law degrees.

  • 12:05:26

    NNAMDII guess, Jennifer, that's a fairly -- I guess that's a fairly common criticism you hear of rankings whether it's at the college level or the high school level?

  • 12:05:35

    BELL-ELLWANGERYeah. Parents are inclined to want a rating of some sort. In fact, we found in our most recent poll of the Data Quality Campaign that 90 percent of parents want a school's performance rating, because that helps them make decisions about their schools. And really ultimately parents don't have a lot time. They want something that's easy to use, easy to understand, and oftentimes easy to find. So, again, I would say, you look at this information and then you take that with the rest of your schools information. You go for a visit at the school. You think about how is that school serving all students? What other questions to do you have and take that with you and use the rating as that beginning.

  • 12:06:18

    NNAMDIJenny Abamu, I want to make a distinction between rankings as in U.S. News and World Report and ratings, because the District and Maryland both have their own rating systems to gauge their school's performance. Can you explain how those work starting with the District?

  • 12:06:32

    ABAMUYeah. So exactly, Kojo, so in D.C. and Maryland they have rating systems that use stars. So if you have -- and it's in a one to five, one being the worst and five being the best. So if you have five stars in schools, usually it's an indication of some kind of performance that's doing really well. This is all relating back to ESSA, which is the federal law that mandates that school districts have to provide some kind of quality rating system to bring transparence measures to families so that they are able to understand what's going on within schools. And so in D.C. the rating system, they consider things like attendance, graduation rates, also reading proficiency, math proficiency and also improvement on test scores over time. That's also measuring things like growth. And the Maryland indicator is a weigh similar things.

  • 12:07:30

    ABAMUI think it's -- the interesting part is not just that they are rating them though. If you look at the report cards that D.C. and Maryland have created -- D.C. I would say is probably the most robust in terms of information. So beyond just the stars you can go into each school and you can kind of see different things that the District has chosen to weigh. For example, like how many teachers -- how long have teachers been there, how many experienced teachers are in your school, how many years have they been there. Things like that also do matter to parents. And the District has chosen to try and make that data more transparent. And so that's really interesting to see.

  • 12:08:09

    ABAMUAnd also I think one other really important part for both Maryland and D.C., Maryland I think some of the districts are still trying to get this data out accurately. But looking at different demographic groups and how they perform in a school. So if you look at the overall star rating you'll probably miss this. But if you go inside, you can kind of see in different schools how different demographic groups are performing within that school.

  • 12:08:32

    ABAMUSo it might be four stars or five stars, but if, you know, black and Latino students might be struggling in reading or something else, it's really important for parents to note that, so they can begin to ask questions and things like that about what's going on with those particular demographic groups in those schools.

  • 12:08:48

    NNAMDIJenny, how do parents use them? How easy are these rating systems for parents to navigate?

  • 12:08:54

    ABAMUI feel like that varies. Virginia's, for example, does not have a summative rating system. And I do think that one's a little harder to go through. I love data and I love reporting on data and I go through school data all the time, but it's not easy. It is a bit time consuming. I think I have a slightly skewed perception of it, because I do do it so often. I think for the average person it is a little more difficult to understand everything that's inside of that system and most people will just kind of glaze over to summative stars. And D.C. has made their system so that you can kind of omit other schools that you don't want to see based on how many stars they have.

  • 12:09:33

    ABAMUAnd some people do criticize that a lot because, I mean, it's a very optimistic perspective to think that someone will go into a system and then look beyond the stars and look into all the other things and use that data to ask some more questions to their school district or, you know, fight for their schools. A lot of parents -- and we're already seeing this in D.C. schools are using this to make choices where they'll say, I'll leave this school, because it's not good for the kids.

  • 12:09:59

    NNAMDIHere is Tim in Alexandria, Virginia. Tim, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:10:04

    TIMHi. How are you doing? I looked through that U.S. News & World Report ranking briefly and I primarily focused on Virginia and I'm wondering if anybody has talked about the fact that socioeconomics and (unintelligible) influence on the rankings. That the free and reduced lunch socio economics, if you look at it, it directly affects and influences the rankings in Virginia. Thanks.

  • 12:10:27

    NNAMDIThank you very much. We also got a tweet from Scott who says, "As a parent I've discussed the school rankings with neighbors and see the disturbing trend. Affluent parents use the ranking to self-segregate even while scores don't reflect what parents care about most, a caring positive school culture with a rich curriculum and stability." Care to comment on that Jennifer?

  • 12:10:50

    BELL-ELLWANGERYeah. I think that, again, when you're taking a look at these rankings or the ratings as Jenny talked about really parents can use this data to advocate for changes in their schools if they don't feel that their school is in the tops of the ratings or the ranks where they think that they need to be. That's the point at which you start asking those important questions. And school leaders really should be using this data to take a hard look at themselves and look at how their school is serving all students. So that's why I would say it's really just the beginning. And we know that parents and policy makers use the data behind either the ratings or the rankings to make important decisions about their schools including resources, which is, you know, why you want to see how all students in a school are being served.

  • 12:11:41

    NNAMDIGot to take a short --

  • 12:11:42

    ABAMUI think that -- just to respond to this also comment, I think it's just really important to note that what Jennifer is saying is a really optimistic perspective of what is happening versus what the reality of what something people might be experiencing particularly in Ward 8. For example, there's several one star schools there. In those schools, the enrollment projections have dropped dramatically this year. And that's led to budget cuts where -- literally the per pupil funding, they can't fund the schools the same way, because they're losing kids at a alarmingly high rate. And so I think that to assume that parents might stick there and fight, is a very optimistic perspective especially if policy makers aren't as responsive to parents when they reach out to them.

  • 12:12:28

    NNAMDIWell, Montgomery County is pushing back against the U.S. News & World Report high school ratings. We're going to take a short break. And when we come we'll find out more about that. But we're still taking your calls, 800-433-8850. Are you a teacher or school administrator? What do you think about school rankings? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:13:14

    NNAMDIWelcome back. On the wake of high school rankings released last week by U.S. News & World Report we're talking about what makes a top ranked school with Jennifer Bell-Ellwanger. She is the President and CEO of Data Quality Campaign, a nonprofit focused on education data policy and use. Jenny Abamu is an Education reporter for WAMU 88.5. And joining us now by phone is Derek Turner. Derek Turner is the Communications Director for Montgomery County Public Schools. Derek, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:13:41

    DEREK TURNERThanks for having me, Kojo.

  • 12:13:43

    NNAMDIMontgomery County Public Schools voice concern over their rankings on this list. You say that data from several schools were missing. What was the issue?

  • 12:13:52

    TURNERSo first we're proud of how our schools perform. You know, Walt Wittman made a top 100 schools. Particularly this case there was just data that was sent over to U.S. New & World Report that they omitted in the file and probably changed the outcomes for a few schools. You know, it's a concern but it's not a huge deal for us, because at the end of the day we know that this is just one of dozens of ways to cut the data. Within 24 hours of the U.S. News & World Report, we saw the Jay Matthews Challenge Index come out, which ranked schools. We have the Nesh, The Good School. So there are a dozen ways to cut the data, but we just wanted to make sure that the community knows that the schools performance in the U.S. News & World Report doesn't actually reflect the outcome for three specific schools.

  • 12:14:38

    NNAMDIWhy? Why wasn't U.S. News & World Report able to get complete data for Montgomery County? Who provides that data?

  • 12:14:45

    TURNERSo the data is provided by the Maryland State Department of Education. And they actually did provide the full set of data. But like anything, there's human error. And it looks like U.S. News & World Report just missed a couple of data points for a few schools. You know, we're all fallible and we don't hold it against them. We just ask that, you know, they make those adjustments so their data sets that they're showing to the world reflect our actual school performance.

  • 12:15:10

    NNAMDIYou sent this concern out into a newsletter for parents. Why did you feel this was an important enough issue to alert parents about?

  • 12:15:18

    TURNERSo we get a lot of inquiries when these rankings come out. They've shaped a lot of the perceptions in our community and sometimes because people really care about student performance. But unfortunately it's also some parents or some community members who don't have kids in school who are also saying, how does this affect my real estate value? So we just want to let the community know, because there are clearly people paying attention to this. That there's some discrepancies and people should be aware of those so that they can make informed decisions.

  • 12:15:49

    TURNERBut at the end of the day, the important thing for us is that there are 19 ways to cut this data. And if people really want to know how our students and our schools are performing we actually created a local accountability model that looks at equity and accountability so that you can see at the classroom level, at the district level, and at the state level how our schools are performing for both kids in poverty, both kids of color, and kids of color and poverty.

  • 12:16:17

    TURNERSo they're disaggregated. So actually know how each school is serving all of its kids.

  • 12:16:22

    NNAMDIJennifer Bell-Ellwanger?

  • 12:16:23

    BELL-ELLWANGERYeah. I just wanted to respond. Montgomery County Schools is exactly right. They looked at the data in the U.S. News & World Report and they saw some errors and issues and they want to get those corrected and that's exactly what we want around this data. The more that the data is transparent and used publically, the more that you can correct errors and miscalculations. And then again once the more data is used, the better it becomes. So we would really applaud Montgomery County for looking carefully at these rankings and then also offering other ideas and ways to look at the information in their schools.

  • 12:16:59

    NNAMDIThen there are the skeptics about these rankings. We got on our web page -- Kelly wrote, "As a person living with under resourced, overcrowded Montgomery County Public Schools seeing MCPS take such extreme measures to address a silly ranking system is hard to take." Jennifer, some parents and advocates and people like Kelly obviously oppose the idea of school rankings, because they say it fails to capture more qualitative features of schools. How do you respond?

  • 12:17:33

    BELL-ELLWANGERYeah. I think, again, as I mentioned earlier. Using a ranking or the rating that's just the beginning of the conversation, you need to also then go look at -- Jenny mentioned the state report cards in Maryland, Virginia, and in D.C. who provide -- they provide a lot of other information about the school's quality whether that's their school's climate, discipline, other really important college and career readiness indicators. So we would say, just start that conversation. And then again we would say, go visit the schools too. See what's really happening the school. Ask those important questions of the school leaders around what is happening, where is there need for improvement, what do they think about these rankings themselves.

  • 12:18:15

    NNAMDIDerek, what would you say to Kelly when he calls it a silly ranking system that you're going out of your way to address?

  • 12:18:22

    TURNERSo I think it's just one of many tools that community members look to and we want to correct the record when we can. But this weekend our superintendent of school, Dr. Jack Smith, also put out a note in the op-ed in The Washington Post -- a transparent note about where we are in the achievement gap and holding ourselves accountable. And pointing the entire world to our equity accountability report card about how each school is serving all of its students.

  • 12:18:46

    TURNERAnd I think Jennifer hit the nail in the head. We really need to focus on how schools are serving all students. Not aggregate data how majority of students are doing. But let's look closer. Let's disaggregate and see is this schools serving African American students? Is it serving students in poverty? Is it serving Latino students in poverty? Let's take a look at that data and let's hold ourselves accountable to that. And these rankings are great to look at. But let's dig deeper and think more deeply about these things.

  • 12:19:14

    NNAMDISchool culture can make a big difference on how kids experience high school. Are there ways, Jennifer, to quantify school culture?

  • 12:19:22

    BELL-ELLWANGERYeah. Many states are actually looking at school climate very carefully and school culture. And they're using things like surveys where they're doing panoramic or 360 view on school climate. They're asking teachers, parents, and students what is happening at the school. How are you feeling each day? Are you safe? How are you engaged in classrooms? How are teachers responding to you? Are they there to answer your questions? So really trying to get at what's happening in the school each and every day.

  • 12:19:56

    NNAMDIJenny Abamu, do D.C., Maryland, or Virginia schools do anything to track or to quantify culture or social emotional learning?

  • 12:20:04

    ABAMUThey do. And they also track culture in a similar way. They do surveys for students and those I believe should be coming out relatively soon. And so each year there is a climate survey. And it kind of talks about things like are you safe, and other indicators along those lines. And I think those -- one of the really interesting points that I learned when I visited a school is that some teachers were actually taking that survey and using that to compare if students were feeling safe, feeling engaged. Were they also improving and other indicators like reading and math and things like that, because there is this theory about engagement and a feeling of safety and having a good school climate and whether that correlates with actually improved academic achievement. And so I have seen actually some schools take that data and try to respond to it so they can track other things.

  • 12:21:01

    NNAMDIWe're just about out of time, Jennifer. But quickly where should parents go to find out more information about their schools?

  • 12:21:06

    BELL-ELLWANGERAbout their schools, I think a great place to start is on their state report cards and most generally including D.C. and in Maryland you can just go do a one Goggle search stop and you should be able to find the Maryland State Report Card or the D.C. State Report Card.

  • 12:21:23

    NNAMDIJennifer Bell-Ellwanger is the President and CEO of Data Quality Campaign, a nonprofit focused on education data, policy, and use. Thank you for joining us.

  • 12:21:31

    BELL-ELLWANGERThank you very much.

  • 12:21:31

    NNAMDIDerek Turner is the Communications Director for Montgomery County Public Schools. Derek, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:21:36

    TURNERYou're welcome.

  • 12:21:37

    NNAMDIJenny Abamu is an Education reporter for WAMU 88.5. Jenny, always a pleasure.

  • 12:21:43


  • 12:21:44

    NNAMDIGoing to take a short break, when we come back, we'll talk about a new program in Fairfax County that tries to ease the reunification process between migrant children from Central American and their family members in the U.S. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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