Rank and file rankings no more

Liam Julian

Last week, U.S. News and World Report, the most widely known source of college and grad-school rankings, decided to try its hand at ranking America's high schools. This probably got Newsweek (which once had a monopoly on judging high schools) all bent out of shape.

Journalism professor Samuel Freedman, who sometimes pens the "On Education" column in the New York Times, was a bit unsettled, too. "The ranking is a centerpiece of what we might call the Anxiety Industry," he wrote yesterday. Freedman also quotes Stanford educationist David Labaree, who finds the proliferation of U.S. News's franchise "a little disquieting" and thinks that it "exacerbates the rankings mania that's harming education at all levels."

At a time when traditional weekly newsmagazines don't have a lot of traction, respect, or revenues, one readily understands the business impulse behind U.S. News's penchant for ranking everything that isn't tied down. But it wouldn't work if the customers didn't buy it. Lots of people clearly want to know which hospitals, business schools, etc. are better than others, and U.S. News has provided them answers where before few existed.

The answers are not always reliable, though. The magazine's college rankings, for example, are famously quirky and in many cases do a better job of conferring stature upon institutions than in evaluating their quality. U.S. News judges universities by such criteria as alumni giving and freshmen SAT scores, while paying scant attention to how well schools actually teach their students.

Fortunately, the magazine's new high-school rankings rely on a markedly stronger methodology that takes into account minority achievement and college readiness, and does a better job showing whether schools are educating all their students well. It's not perfect, but it's a step in the right direction.

So why are U.S. News's college rankings superficial while its high-school rankings are much more solid? Competition.

As noted earlier, Newsweek has long dominated the high-school ranking landscape. Since 1998, it has used the Challenge Index, developed by Washington Post education reporter Jay Mathews, to sort America's secondary-education providers. The Challenge Index is simple: the number of AP, IB, or Cambridge level tests a high school gives is divided by the number of seniors it enrolls. The higher the number, the better the school.

Along came Education Sector's Andy Rotherham, who convinced U.S. News that the Challenge Index, while simple, doesn't judge by the right criteria and doesn't give parents an accurate picture of which schools are better than others. U.S. News sees an unfilled niche--a new way to rank high schools that will appeal to more parents--and goes for it.

To be clear, this is all for the good. Curious parents are now presented not only with lists of the best high schools, but they're able to choose which list uses the best criteria for its rankings.

Now it's Newsweek's turn to crash the party. It should produce its own college rankings (using criteria similar to those of Washington Monthly's higher education judgments) to provide parents and students a more nuanced way to compare universities. If a widely read publication such as Newsweek started ranking colleges, and used well thought-out criteria, it could really change the way Americans view higher education (it would sell lots of magazines, too). The conversation might be less about names and reputations, and more about classes and learning.

And it might spur some accountability in the higher ed arena. Right now, colleges that receive federal money don't have to show that they're using those dollars to educate undergraduates well (Education Secretary Spellings has considered college accountability testing because of this). But if the conversation shifts, if rankings get steadily better at evaluating which universities are actually turning clueless freshmen into savvy seniors, accountability may gradually come from the private sector, without government-imposed monitoring.

Recently, the Wall Street Journal got into the act by ranking high schools by which get the most graduates into top universities. Let's hope the competition continues to heat up.

"Andy and Me: Two Ways to Rate High Schools," by Jay Mathews, Washington Post online, December 4, 2007

"A Rank Exercise," by Andrew J. Rotherham and Sara Mead, Washington Post online, June 22, 2007