Earlier this week, U.S. News & World Report released its annual ranking of American high schools. Typically, Wilton High School ranks high on the list, almost always making the top-10 in CT and receiving high marks from the magazine. In fact, just last year, WHS was ranked 7th in the state and number 386 in the country.
But when Wilton didn’t even make the rankings on the 2017 list, that raised a lot of eyebrows–and concerns. Originally it was believed that Wilton wasn’t included because the magazine issues an invitation for schools to submit info, and that with the district’s changeover to a new email system, the invite to participate had gotten “lost in the mail.”
Not so. U.S. News gathers its own data from standardized tests and demographics, and uses a four step system to rate schools based on that information. The first step schools had to pass was an absolute one–if they didn’t pass it, they didn’t qualify to be ranked.
According to the magazine, “U.S. News started by looking at reading and math results for all students on each state’s high school proficiency tests. U.S. News then factored in the percentages of economically disadvantaged students–who tend to score lower–enrolled at the schools to identify schools performing much better than statistical expectations. To pass Step 1, high schools’ performance had to be one-third of one standard deviation above the average.”
For the 2017 list, the magazine used standardized test scores from the 2014-2015 school year. That was the first year that WHS students were assessed with the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) tests. It was also the year that Wilton performed much below expectations. That meant Wilton didn’t get past the first round this time.
“There is a Tier 1 cutoff where you have to meet a certain data point. The data point is based on performance on the test and then also based on your demographic. There was a trend line and a data point we had to reach, and we were just literally right underneath that cutoff score, based on our SBAC performance. If you don’t make that first tier cutoff, they don’t rank you. That’s what it came down to, we were just underneath it,” explains Dr. Robert O’Donnell, WHS principal.
O’Donnell says those low scores were “certainly not up to my expectations.” The low scores from that year were debated and discussed a lot when it happened–three years ago. While the question of not being ranked on the U.S. News list has raised some recent local chatter, isn’t the story of the low scores an old one?
“When we received those scores, we made them public, we presented them to the Board of Education, they were public in town. Yes, it is an old story,” he acknowledges. But O’Donnell also points out the irony of a 2017 listing using 2014/15 test scores.
“It’s ironic that they based these results on data that is so old. The district has really worked extensively to further align with the Common Core. We noted in last year’s performance that the District had narrowed the gap in SBAC performance. So we certainly believe we’re doing the right thing in terms alignment of standards, in terms of the curriculum review that’s going on in virtually all the subject areas, and certainly the rigor of the instructional tasks the students are doing. We definitely believe we’re going in the right direction since that first administration of the SBAC,” he says.
What’s more, officials point to other assessments and indices where the school stands out on the positive side.
“I think it’s noteworthy, our performance on the first year of the CT SAT was good. We’d like to be at the top. And with the new assessment standards for Connecticut high schools, we were just one of only five in the state that were rated as a school of distinction. There are other data points that suggest that our students are performing very well in fact,” O’Donnell says.
Not every high school in the state made the list this year, including other schools in Wilton’s DRG–including Darien and Joel Barlow.
O’Donnell hasn’t yet taken a look at how the school would have fared on the other matrices and steps on the U.S. News ranking list if WHS had progressed past Step 1, but they plan to. “That’s something we wanted to do, get a sense of where we would fall.”
And while making a list like U.S. News Best High Schools is great PR–as it was last year when Wilton ranked 7th–O’Donnell says school administrators look at a wide variety of other data.
“This most recent new rating in the state of CT – that metric includes 12 different data points. There is standardized testing, college and career readiness, access to the arts, a physical fitness test–it included a lot of data points. The other thing that was valuable about that, you could not have a large achievement gap between special education students and regular education students. Some of the rankings that are based purely on standardized test scores, certainly we consider them, but I’ve always thought you look at a comprehensive assessment system for your school, and [standardized test scores] are something you consider, but you want to consider multiple metrics.”
In some ways evaluating a school means taking the good with the not-so-good.
“The Newsweek poll came out, we were second in CT, we were pretty high in the country–that’s nice to hear, and we do value that, and it’s certainly a message that our students are performing well. Really we need to be honest with ourselves, like we were: our students across the board did not perform that well on that first SBAC assessment. But again, you need to look at multiple data points when you’re measuring a school,” O’Donnell says.