Do School Rankings Matter?
Updated: May 10, 2018
This archived post appeared on my original blog site Feb. 25, 2017
(Update added May 9, 2018: Our most recent ranking is #30)
Shorewood has been consistently ranked among the top school districts in the state and country, and our schools individually have done the same -- especially Shorewood High School. Some of us take for granted that Shorewood schools are among the best in the metro area, the state and the nation. Taking a look at some of the most recent rankings reveals a trend that concerns me.
For 2017, for example, the firm Niche named our district #7 in Wisconsin, our high school #7 in Wisconsin, Shorewood Intermediate School #14 among Wisconsin middle schools, Lake Bluff #18 and Atwater #45 among best elementary schools. Not too shabby -- but neighboring Whitefish Bay beat us out in every category. Maybe that's OK, but I would be curious to know if there's a reason or several reasons we are falling behind in these rankings compared to our closest neighbor. This isn't just because of a friendly rivalry -- it matters because we compete over relocating families, new businesses, home sales, teacher and administrative hiring and even private and corporate donors with Whitefish Bay.
When our family moved to Shorewood, lawn after lawn proudly displayed signs declaring our high school as being the best in Wisconsin, which referred to its U.S. News & World Reports ranking in 2013. In its most recent ranking, Shorewood was #28. (Update: Our 2018 ranking is #30).
I don't point this out to say that our schools are no longer excellent, because they remain top-tier. I point it out to contrast with some board members and some in Shorewood who take any questioning of this type of trend as heresy, or as an assault on our teachers or even our children. Of course it is not. Our children are still as eager as ever to learn. Our teachers continue to work hard. Does that mean these rankings are arbitrary and we should ignore them? We certainly didn't think that when we were ranked #1.
When we stop seeing our schools in the myriad "top schools" lists out there, the response from district leadership should not be, "those ratings don't mean anything," or "how do we spin this so that no one criticizes us, and the district isn't embarrassed?" It should rightly be, "there's probably a reason this is happening. Maybe it's on our side, maybe the rating methodology changed. Let's figure out why and make a plan to address it if it's worth addressing."
I am not suggesting we should chase every ranking or recognition -- there are too many for that, and it would be a terrible use of the district's time. But anyone with a reasonably good grasp of statistics could read through methodology that typically accompany these ratings and be able to tell if our absence or lower rating is due to a legitimate academic reason -- for example, dropping ACT scores, or if it's because we were not eligible for rating because of some characteristic of the district not in our control.
Some argue these ratings are meaningless. I think they are of limited use -- we should never use them as the basis for rewarding or punishing schools or teachers, or to set funding priorities. But they are not meaningless, because others assign meaning to them, and when we have been ranked highly, so have we. Rankings matter to college admissions officers, real estate agents, prospective families and home buyers and even our own students, who want to be able to say they attended the best high school in Wisconsin. Not only do they matter to these people, but they should matter to school board members. They are one of many measures of our schools' success that matters to me, and it would make me happy to be part of being able to call ourselves #1 again.