Ranking Our High Schools
What's the best way to grade a school? We tackled this question and put Valley high schools to the test. Find out how yours fared.
Ranking Our High Schools
We all want our schools to provide the best education possible for our kids. But are they succeeding? From class size and teacher qualifications to SAT scores, we look at your high school’s statistics — and explain why they tell only part of the story
by Rita Ross
That intriguing, frustrating question has challenged educators, parents and elected officials for decades. Because there’s so much at stake when it comes to educating our children, monitoring school performance is essential. To that end, the New York State Board of Regents — working with teachers, administrators and education professionals — has established a set of learning standards over the years to help with this daunting task. The state’s Department of Education guidelines include “descriptions of broad expectations of what students should know, understand, and be able to do” in seven subject areas at each grade level from kindergarten through high school. School districts collect required performance ratings of students and teachers. The department issues an annual statewide education profile: a bulky, statistics-filled document entitled A Report to the Governor and the Legislature on the Educational Status of the State’s Schools.
But for many parents and educators, the bottom-line criteria for an A-plus institution, especially a high school, is simple: How well does it prepare students for college and “the real world?” Even that question doesn’t address the needs of all kids. What about students who require remedial help, have learning or other disabilities, don’t want to go to college, or don’t speak English as their primary language?
Parents of these children might argue that the best school is one that raises the skills — and encourages the potential — of all its students, not just those bound for Harvard or Yale. (That’s one of the goals of the federal government’s No Child Left Behind legislation — ensuring that all students are proficient in English language arts and math by the end of the 2014 school year.)
Here in the Hudson Valley, there’s good news on the education front. Several schools in our area rank among the highest-rated in the nation. Four Dutchess County high schools — Arlington, John Jay, Roy C. Ketcham and Red Hook — were named on Newsweek’s recent “America’s Best High Schools” list.
The formula for his school’s success, says Red Hook Principal Roy Paisley, is based in part on holding students and staff accountable. “We encourage our kids to take the most demanding courses,” Paisley says. “Our staff has high expectations of the students. And we’ve found that the more that’s expected of students, the more they rise to the occasion.”
Perhaps you’re considering relocating, and want a heads-up about the school district in a particular area. Or maybe you just want to take the pulse of your community’s educational health. How do you sort out the alphabet soup of information that’s available to rate a district or school?
To help navigate the maze without requiring Einstein-like abilities, we’ve compiled a chart that compares several factors at high schools in five Hudson Valley counties. These include facts about total school enrollment and the percentage of students who go on to college, as well as instructional support indicators such as class size and per-pupil spending.
The charts are based on data from three sources: the Mid-Hudson School Almanac, along with statistical profiles from the 2005 edition of the state Department of Education’s report to the governor; the Standard & Poor’s Web site, schoolmatters.com, which provides extensive district-by-district information on various aspects of public education; and, in some cases, data from the schools themselves.
As the tongue-in-cheek saying goes, there are three kinds of lies — little white lies, big dirty lies, and statistics. That’s certainly not to condemn the importance of comparing numbers. But while they can show how well students perform on Regents and other tests, even the state warns about taking statistics too literally.
For instance, in the introduction to its school district report cards, the Department of Education points out that this type of survey “does not provide information about student performance on other measures valued by the community.” It urges that in some cases, “decisions about school/district programs are better made by combining information about performance with information gained by visiting the school.”
Frank Pepe, superintendent of Arlington school district, agrees that numbers are only part of the story. “Statistics don’t capture the spirit of a school or the opportunities it offers students,” he says.
Pepe notes three factors that he says contribute to Arlington’s — or any good school district’s — educational success. The first one is “strong parental involvement in their children’s lives and their school,” he says. Second, there should be high expectations all around — of kids, teachers, and administration. And third, kids should be eagerly involved in the school’s curriculum and its other activities. “These are like the three legs of the stool that support a child’s success in school,” he says.
Jack Jordan, interim superintendent of Ulster County’s Onteora Central School District, points out that many factors help make a school top-notch. “From my standpoint, a good school is one where the kids always come first,” he says. “When I make a decision as an administrator, the bottom-line question is ‘How will this affect the students?’ If it involves hiring an instructor, I ask myself ‘Would I want my own kids to have this person as a teacher?’” Another essential factor Jordan cites is “what I call ‘open and often’ communication between parents, students, and staff.”
In fast-growing Orange County, schools in Washingtonville are contending with the effects of a rapid increase in population. Nonetheless, the district was named a “high-performing, gap-closing school district” for 2004-2005 by the state Board of Education. Michael Rossi, principal at Washingtonville High School, attributes their success to teamwork. “Everyone — from the principal to the custodian, the students, the librarian — is on the same page as much as possible.” The kids help each other, too. “When our freshman class first comes in, the seniors greet them in the lobby, and take them around on a guided tour,” Rossi notes. “If you emphasize a theme of trust and respect, it makes a huge difference in the quality of a school.”
To help interpret the numbers, here’s a guide to the some of the categories in the accompanying chart:
Median household income: Children from affluent households usually start school with advantages such as better vocabularies. They also tend to learn faster and perform better on tests. Many educators say that the family’s income level is one of the two biggest indicators pointing to higher test scores for kids. Yet it’s not the only factor. Red Hook’s Paisley notes, for instance, that his district “certainly isn’t affluent by some Hudson Valley standards. We’re quite diverse. Our community members tend to place value on education. That’s an important component to making schools good. People care.”
Percentage of adults in the school district who have a bachelor’s degree: The second significant factor affecting kids’ school success appears to be their parents’ level of education — especially their mom’s. Since mothers are usually a household’s primary nurturers, those with college degrees tend to encourage their kids to likewise earn their sheepskins.
Average class size: One might automatically assume that the smaller the class, the more attention is paid to each pupil. But class size isn’t a constant in most schools. It varies among grades and subjects, doesn’t reflect whether teacher’s aides are present, and can’t take into account the experience level of the teacher.
Percentage of students with limited English proficiency (LEP) and the percentage eligible for free or reduced-priced lunches: These figures reflect, to some extent, a school district’s social and economic makeup. Schools with a high percentage of LEP students face the added challenge of supplementing the regular curriculum with English-language instruction. And the number of students eligible for financial assistance with meals usually mirrors the number of families in the community with limited resources. As a result, there may be fewer opportunities for parents to help students hone study skills outside the classroom.
Percentage of students who go on to college: It’s pretty much a universal fact of life these days that to get a decent job a college degree is essential. And more and more workplaces are requiring a master’s degree or equivalent. But some educators say that in evaluating a school, it’s not just important to know if many of its students go on to college. The key is determining where the grads are headed — is it to community colleges, four-year schools, public or private?
Average SAT scores: While these don’t directly reflect a district’s ability to teach its children, SATs do highlight how well students perform on these types of demanding tests. Love ’em or loath ’em, SATs are a fact of life — and a source of anxiety — for high school juniors and seniors who aim to go to college.
Per-pupil expenditure: Because school districts vary tremendously in size and spending, it can be tricky to interpret this data accurately. But obviously, the more money spent per student, the more books, computers, sports, music programs and other resources are available in schools. And, theoretically at least, the more funds a school district has to spend on salaries, the higher the caliber of teachers they can hire.
Teachers with master’s degrees: To become permanently certified to teach in a public school, today’s teachers are required to earn a master’s degree in education. But most educators, parents, and kids agree that it’s not only the piece of paper that counts — it’s enthusiasm and dedication that makes a teacher a true winner.
Reading and math proficiency: Based on how many of its students passed the Regents exams in math and English, these ratings help indicate how well a school prepares kids in these essential subjects. The higher the score, the more students are meeting minimum Regents standards.
A final reminder: When comparing numbers, it’s helpful to consider them as part of a school district’s bigger picture. As Paisley puts it, “Sure, it’s useful to evaluate statistics when you’re considering a school. But I also encourage parents to come with their kids and take a tour. Talk to the principal, teachers and kids. Get a feeling of the school. You can tell a great deal about what a school’s really like by spending even just a few minutes in it.”