MP, WACO top county schools in periodical's rankingsU.S. News & World Report lists best high schools
By BROOKS TAYLOR
Mt. Pleasant News
Generally one of the first things heard when visiting a new community and discussing quality of life issues, the comment, “We have great schools,” is uttered.
Really? Says who, using what data?
Comparing school districts never can be an exact science, but U.S. News & World Report recently published its 2013 list of Best High Schools in the United States and also a list of “bests” for each of the 50 states.
Mt. Pleasant Community and WACO Community earned the top rankings in Henry County, each achieving “bronze” status. Mt. Pleasant also graded out as the top high school in the Southeast Conference, the only institution to receive the bronze award.
Statewide, John F. Kennedy High School of Cedar Rapids was named Iowa’s best high school.
Other school districts in the top 10 included (listed in order): Decorah, Ames, Cedar Falls, Linn-Mar, Mid-Prairie, ADM of Adel, West Liberty, Cedar Rapids Prairie and Ankeny. Twenty-one Iowa school districts received silver medal status and 71 were accorded the bronze medal.
Before looking at the data for local school districts, let’s look at U.S. News’s methodology in developing the rankings.
To produce the rankings, U.S. News teamed up with the Washington, D.C.-based American Institutes for Research (AIR), one of the largest behavioral and social science research organizations in the world.
AIR implemented U.S. News’s comprehensive rankings methodology, which is based on the key principles that a great high school must serve all of its students well, not just those who are college bound, and that it must be able to produce measurable academic outcomes to show the school is successfully educating its student body across a range of performance indicators.
U.S. News used a three-step process to determine the best high schools. The first two steps ensured that the schools serve all of their students well, using performance on state proficiency tests as the benchmarks. For those making it past the first two steps, a third step assessed the degree to which schools prepare students for college-level work.
First step: The first step determined whether each school’s students were performing better than statistically expected for the average student in the state. The process began by looking at reading and math results for all students on each state’s high school proficiency tests.
Then, the percentage of economically disadvantaged students (who tend to score lower) enrolled at the school to identify the schools that were performing better than statistical expectations.
Step two: For schools making it past the first step, the second step determined whether the school’s least-advantaged students (black, Hispanic and low-income) were performing better than average for similar students in the state.
Each school’s math and reading proficiency rates for disadvantaged students with the statewide results for these student groups were compared and then schools were selected that were performing better than the respective state’s average.
Step three: Schools that made it through the first two steps became eligible to be judged on the final step — college-readiness performance — using Advanced Placement (AP courses) or the International Baccalaureate test (not used in Iowa) data as the benchmarks for success, depending on which program was the largest at the school.
AP is a college-board program that offers college-level courses at high school across the country. These courses are more rigorous than some of the courses students take for dual credit (high school and college credit simultaneously).
U.S. News said the third step measured which schools produced the best college-level achievement for the highest percentages of students. This was done by computing a “college readiness index (CRI) based on the school’s AP participation rate (the number of 12th-grade students in the 2010-2011 academic year who took at least one AP course, divided by the number of 12th-graders) and how well the students did on those tests.
The latter part, called the quality-adjusted AP participation rate, is the number of 12th-grade students in the 2010-11 academic year who took and passed (received an AP score of 3 or higher) at least one of the tests before or during the senior year, divided by the number of 12th-graders at that school. Any individual AP course was considered when determining if a student took or passed at least one test.
Looking at the data with the naked eye, it appears that AP courses and the college-readiness index heavily factored into the rankings. Nearly all of the top-ranked schools had high college-readiness offerings and a sizeable selection of AP courses.
Paul Beatty, director of instruction for the Mt. Pleasant Community School District, said that AP is one of the “catch-words” in today’s education circles.
“AP is a cultural attitude about what instruction and curricular expectation is in high school,” he began. “AP success does demonstrate the amount of rigor in the school district. It was one of the criteria we used in weighting grades. While there are a lot of alternative means to guarantee credit, they are not at the level of rigor AP is.”
He said that he saw feet not yards of difference between Mt. Pleasant and the state’s top-ranked school districts. “Only in college readiness are other schools exceeding us. The difference between us and other (state school) districts was not that large.”
According to the report, Mt. Pleasant’s AP participation is 5 percent, something Beatty acknowledged is low and the district is working on to strengthen. “We are starting conversations about how we can expand AP offerings. Our challenge is to develop a system where the students are taking (AP courses), testing and succeeding.”
Currently, Mt. Pleasant offers six AP courses, one of which is taught online. Two are English courses, two are math and the other pair include U.S. History and chemistry.
Following is a closer look at data included from the county schools in the report.
MT. PLEASANT COMMUNITY SCHOOL DISTRICT
Mt. Pleasant’s 9-12 enrollment includes 647 students, 15 percent of whom are minorities and 37 percent considered economically disadvantaged.
AP participation rate is 5 percent and the student body is made up of 52 percent male and 48 percent female students.
In Iowa Test of Educational Development (ITED) testing, 82 percent of high-school students were proficient in reading and 81 percent in math. A total of 154 students were tested for reading proficiency, 19 percent scored high, 64 percent were intermediate and 18 percent low.
On the math proficiency testing, the same number were tested with 27 percent scoring high, 53 percent in the intermediate range and 19 percent low.
Of the 5 percent taking AP courses, there was a 63 percent passing rate.
Overall student performance had Mt. Pleasant at 93 percent on the state test performance index. The percentage of disadvantaged students who were proficient was at 72 percent.
WACO COMMUNITY SCHOOL DISTRICT
WACO has 226 junior and senior high school students (grades 7-12) are divided into 55 percent male and 45 percent female students. The high school has an 8 percent minority enrollment and 36 percent are defined as economically disadvantaged.
Testing revealed that 81 percent of the students were proficient in reading and 72 percent in math.
Thirty-two students were tested in reading. Some 25 percent scored in the high range, 56 percent were in the intermediate range and 19 percent low.
The same number of students took the math testing. Thirty-four percent were in the high range, 38 percent intermediate and 28 percent low.
In overall student performance, which measures student performance on state exams, WACO ended with a state test performance index of 91 percent.
NEW LONDON COMMUNITY SCHOOL DISTRICT
New London’s results used by U.S. News were from the junior-senior high school, or grades 6-12. Enrollment in those grades totals 285, 52 percent of whom are male and 48 percent female. The junior-senior high school enrollment includes 6 percent minority students and 40 percent of the students are economically disadvantaged.
The AP participation rate is 6 percent. Of that 6 percent, 67 percent were at a passing rate and 60 percent passed AP exams.
Test results showed 70 percent proficiency in reading and 74 percent in math.
Thirty students were tested in reading. A total of 13 percent scored in the high range, 57 percent were intermediate and 30 percent in the low category.
In math, 31 students took the ITED. Results showed 10 percent in the high range, 65 percent at intermediate and 26 percent in the low range. Sixty percent of the disadvantaged students were proficient in testing and 72.1 percent of the non-disadvantaged students.
New London’s state test performance index, which measures overall student performance on state exams, was 77.9 percent.
WINFIELD-MT. UNION SCHOOL DISTRICT
Data from Winfield-Mt. Union used in the rankings was from students in grades 6-12. Enrollment in those grades is 264 including 53 percent male and 47 percent female students. The total minority enrollment is 3 percent. Of the 264 students, 47 percent are economically disadvantaged.
In testing, 55 percent of the students were proficient in reading and 69 percent in math.
Forty-two students took the ITED. In reading proficiency, 5 percent tested high, 50 percent were in the intermediate range and the remaining 45 percent low. Math proficiency scores showed 57 percent in the intermediate range, 31 percent low and 12 percent high.
Testing results also showed 42.5 percent of disadvantaged students proficient. W-MU scored 66.1 percent on the state test performance index.
Beatty said he did not have as much of a problem with state rankings as he did with the national rankings — largely because each state uses varying tests with varying degrees of rigor for its proficiency marks. “Two of the proficiencies are based on state tests, and state tests are not the same across the nation. It puts us (Iowa) against measures that are not calibrated equally. It puts a lot of weight on two days of testing. Preparation for life is not predicated on two days of testing.”
The Iowa rankings can be found at www.usnews.com/education/best-high-