Last week, U.S. News & World Report published its annual rankings of the “best” U.S. public high schools. With 1,204 New York schools making the grade, Scarsdale ranked No. 56 in the state and No. 596 nationally, while Edgemont placed much higher at No. 14 in New York and No. 112 nationally. In terms of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), however, Scarsdale is No. 41, while Edgemont is No. 141.
The release of these rankings may raise questions among residents as to why one high school is higher or lower than another. Whether a school makes the list and where it ranks all depends on the criteria you choose and the weight you choose to give them. And many have argued such numerical compilations can’t truly reflect how well a school is serving its students.
Case in point: the U.S. News formula heavily emphasizes participation in Advanced Placement courses and exams, using AP data for 40 percent of its calculation. And while Scarsdale had an average SAT score of 1360 this year, which puts it in the 90th percentile nationally, the school does not offer AP courses.
Why not? Convinced AP courses encourage students to go a mile wide and an inch deep, in 2006 Scarsdale High School dropped the AP label on its college-level courses and created its own advanced courses, known as Advanced Topics. Instead of spending all their time with AP textbooks, students visit historic sites, write term papers and do field research. The AT curriculum advances critical thinking and deep understanding through simulations, debates, research, primary source analyses and outside readings. It’s equivalent to first-year college course work, with teaching that is responsive to contemporary topics and student interests.
And year after year, two-thirds of Scarsdale seniors are accepted to colleges that the Barron’s Guide ranks as the most competitive in the country.
The U.S. News rankings also reflect the fact that many high schools have opened up admission to their college-level AP courses in an effort to increase participation, but Scarsdale has always had limited admission to its most rigorous courses. It also stopped requiring students to take AP exams. The seniors only take the tests if they actually intend to use them to get college credit, and fewer highly selective colleges are allowing their students to opt out of courses based on their AP scores anyway, which means fewer students here are likely to sit for the exams. In fact, U.S. News reported, just 43 percent of SHS students took AP exams, compared to 94 percent in Edgemont.
Given all of the above, it’s probably remarkable Scarsdale placed as well as it did.
But thankfully, our two local districts don’t put much credence into such compilations. They don’t need to. High-performing Edgemont is in such demand its schools are bursting at the seams, and Scarsdale’s Education for Tomorrow attracts worldwide attention year after year. With PTAs and education foundations raising money for enrichment and facilities or program enhancements, such as the design lab and learning commons at Scarsdale High School, both schools are rich in resources and attract quality faculty. They also attract high-achieving parents who are passionate about education and push their children to achieve. And both Scarsdale and Edgemont high schools graduate 99 percent of their students year after year, sending most of them to four-year colleges and many to highly competitive colleges.
Beyond test scores, graduation rates, and the quality of teachers or quantity of resources, other factors that matter include home-school connections, access to good preschools, innovative curriculum and attention to the health and safety of all students.
Scarsdale and Edgemont schools have all of those.
Which just underscores how arbitrary rankings are.
Top 100 lists may work in pop music, but trying to list the top 100 — or 1,000 — high schools is an absurd exercise.