Are our Disadvantaged Students Really Learning? – an Analysis of the 2017 US News High School Rankings

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The latest US News & World Report High School Rankings (2017) indicate that disadvantaged populations of students are underperforming in Douglas County, and that high graduation rates have been achieved in large part by expedient means of moving such students through the system. This post will explain briefly the ranking’s methodology and then analyze some of the data to support this conclusion.

Only 1 of 5 high schools – Douglas County High – qualified for a ranking. To qualify for the lowest ranking – “Bronze” – schools must meet two criteria. First, their students as a whole must perform better on reading and math exams, administered by the state, than what is statistically expected based on the school’s poverty level (typically measured by the % of the student body on free and reduced lunch).  Second, the “disadvantaged” student groups (includes African-American, Hispanic, and poor students) must perform better than the state average for those populations.

To qualify for “Silver” or “Gold” ratings, there is an additional criteria: schools must exceed the median College Readiness Index (CRI). The CRI is comprised of both AP participation (how many students take an AP exam) and AP performance (how many students pass an AP exam). AP exams are used since these are college level exams through which students can earn college credit by passing.

To understand why 4 of 5 high schools did not qualify for a ranking, let’s look at Alexander High School as a case study (AHS consistently has the top CCRPI score in the district). In reading and math, Alexander students underperformed statistical expectations, having a gap score of negative 18 (a negative score means the actual performance was lower than expectations). Also, its disadvantaged populations scored 8.9 percentage points below the averages for disadvantage students throughout the state (only 12.7% of disadvantaged students were proficient in reading and math).

To understand why Douglas County High School earned a Bronze but not a Silver or Gold, let’s look at its statistics. Its gap score was positive 6.8, and its disadvantaged populations scored 6.5 percentage points above the state average. Thus, the first two criteria were met. Given the fact that its students with disabilities reading and math scores were on par or worse than the district as a whole, it is reasonable to assume that these test scores were boosted by the school’s population of International Baccalaureate students (at least 25% of test takers), which sees significant participation from African-American students.

DCHS did not qualify for Silver, though, because of low performance on AP exams. Even though the participation rate was fairly high (39%), the passing rate on all exams was only 17%, with 28% of seniors passing at least one exam (this is higher than 17% because it only requires one passed exam and excludes multiple failed exams). It is worth noting that in years past, DCHS ranked higher (recall the top 10% ranking?) because the rankings used IB exams instead of AP.

How does this relate to the high graduation rate spike in 2015? These latest rankings use 2015 academic data.  The fact that disadvantaged students are performing less than their peers while graduating at higher rates indicates clearly that the standards for graduation were lower. The high participation of disadvantaged students in the county’s suspect online credit recovery program, e2020, further supports this conclusion.