Why TJ Is Still Number One
Have you heard the news? TJ is now the fourth best high school in the country.
According to the US News & World Report (US News) rankings, TJ was “Number One” in 2008, 2009, and 2010, before dropping to second in 2012 when the rankings resumed after a break, and then to fourth in 2013 and 2014 (all rankings are based on data generated by the senior class that graduated two years earlier). Naturally, the TJ community was proud to wear the “Number One” label, but all that attention has a downside; there are now some, even in our own community, who cite TJ’s current ranking as evidence of a decline. It is not.
The US News rankings use AP tests as the sole measure of college readiness, and are based exclusively on AP tests taken and tests passed, without distinguishing between scores of 3 and scores of 4 or 5. The only thing that has changed since TJ held the top spot is that other high schools have focused more on AP tests, with the result that students at some schools are now taking and passing more of them, in a few cases even more than TJ students.
TJ students have always taken, passed, and excelled at AP tests, but the School itself neither requires nor encourages students to take a maximum number of these tests or the courses that prepare students for them. Instead, TJ emphasizes: STEM subjects, by requiring all students to take computer science and technology courses and by offering a wide variety of science courses; depth, by offering post-AP courses not offered at any other high school; research, by requiring all seniors to conduct research projects and by opening research labs to non-seniors for elective classes; and breadth, by offering a full high school experience complete with over 180 clubs, 26 varsity sports, and a myriad of other opportunities not found at most STEM schools. There is so much more to college readiness than the number of AP tests taken and passed, and so much more to TJ’s excellence. That’s why TJ is still the best high school in America.
US News Rankings Emphasize Quantity Over Quality
After eliminating schools that fail to serve their disadvantaged students, US News judges the remaining schools on “college-readiness performance,” using AP (or IB) test data. The first number in this analysis, given 25% weighting, is computed by dividing the number of seniors who took at least one AP test before or during their senior year by the number of seniors. The second number, which receives 75% weighting, is determined by dividing the number of seniors who took and passed at least one AP test (received an AP score of 3 or higher) by the number of seniors.
This year fifteen schools obtained the maximum 100.0 score for “college readiness,” meaning that every senior at each of these schools took and passed at least one AP test. Of the fifteen high schools that achieved this distinction, TJ has by far the largest senior class. Although a senior class of 450 where every student has passed at least one AP test is arguably in a different category from a senior class of 60 where every student has done so, US News does not distinguish between the two.
To avoid having a tie in the rankings, US News employs two tiebreakers. The first tiebreaker, which receives a 75% weighting, is determined by dividing the total number of AP exams that received passing scores over the number of seniors who passed at least one exam. The second tiebreaker, which receives a 25% weighting, is determined by dividing the total number of exams taken over the number of seniors. These tiebreakers give an advantage to schools where students take more AP tests per student. In fact, Dallas’s School for the Talented and Gifted, the top-ranked school for the last two years, requires all 60 of its seniors to take a minimum of 11 AP tests for graduation.
TJ students take an average of just under two AP tests per student per year, an average of 7.4 tests per student over four years. Because TJ students have unequaled opportunities to take post-AP courses and to conduct on-site research, and because TJ is a comprehensive high school, offering courses in the humanities, arts, and world languages, TJ students take fewer AP courses on average than students at the Dallas school and a small number of other schools where the curriculum is built around AP and where students have neither the depth nor breadth of opportunities afforded TJ students.
A tiebreaker based on the proportion of scores of 4 and 5 (or only of 5) might arguably serve as a more accurate measure of both college readiness and school quality than the proportion of passing scores, and under this alternative methodology TJ would likely come out on top. The average score on AP tests taken by TJ students in 2012 was 4.5, significantly higher than the 3.4 average of the top-ranked school. Because the US News methodology doesn’t distinguish between passing scores and higher scores, it is not well suited for making distinctions among top schools.
In addition, it may not make as much sense to compare STEM schools with general curriculum schools as it does to compare them with each other. For four years, US News has published its US News Best High Schools for STEM rankings, which is based on the same methodology as its general rankings, but considers only math and science AP tests. TJ has risen in this ranking from third in 2011, the ranking’s first year, to second in 2012 and 2013, to number one this year.
However, the STEM US News rankings, like the general rankings, are severely limited by their reliance on the sole yardstick of AP tests passed. Newsweek’s high school rankings, which notably look beyond AP tests passed, give far more weight (25% versus 10%) to “AP tests per student” than to “average AP scores,” hindering the ranking’s ability to make meaningful distinctions among top schools. Though TJ has climbed on this ranking, from 10th in 2012, the first year it and similar schools were ranked, to 8th in 2013, it is unlikely to climb further as long as Newsweek’s methodology, like that of its rankings competitor, emphasizes quantity over quality.
As the authors of Exam Schools, a thoughtful look at several of the nation’s selective public high schools that includes a chapter on TJ, conclude: “The [AP] exams themselves are generally fine for the intended purpose, which is to determine whether a student at the conclusion of a course deserves ‘college credit’ for what he/she now knows about that subject. But the ways that such exams are being used and the roles they have come to play in the college admission process, in parental aspirations, in student competitiveness and GPA-grubbing, and in any number of high-school rating systems are indeed confining, even distorting, for schools that take pride in their differentness and in the flexible ways they handle youngsters with exceptional academic prowess.”
Other factors not considered by either magazine’s rankings include college placement, number of different post-AP courses taken, clubs and sports offered, academic and sports team standings, individual and group awards won, student or alumni survey data, and any other objective or subjective measure. Instead, the US News ranking is the result of a few simple calculations based on one measure of college readiness (and Newsweek’s rankings, while including additional metrics, is heavily weighted toward that same measure). Whether a given ranking methodology places TJ at the top or only very near it, we should recognize the ranking for the limited indicator that it is. Rather than focusing on rankings, we should encourage our very special young people to strive for success in all their endeavors while we support our amazing faculty and staff so that TJ can continue to be the best high school in America.
Dr. Glazer, in a note to faculty, put it this way: Given the national AP/IB push, “TJ will not likely be number one again on this scale, although what we have is much better. At our school, Advanced Placement is just one stop along a deeper pathway with richer and more specialized opportunities. Even within Advanced Placement courses, you strive to add rigor with problem solving and research. It’s a testament to your innovative and dedicated work that our students are empowered to pursue passions in great depth so they may experience ‘joy at the prospect of discovery.’ This standard of excellence makes us number one. Goooooooo Colonials!”