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Jay Mathews: I Goofed on My High School Rankings!

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Jay Mathews invented a high school ranking program that relies on certain criteria, especially the number of students who take AP and IB tests. The data are self-reported by the schools.

Carol Burris warned Jay that some of his rankings were highly improbable, especially those reported by the IDEA charter chain. She was right. Carol thinks that the temptation to “juke the stats” is too powerful. Jay thinks that there was an honest error.

Jay writes:

“When I started what The Washington Post now calls the America’s Most Challenging High Schools list, I was told not to trust data from schools and school districts. They’re sloppy and sometimes dishonest, people said. It won’t work.

“That was 19 years ago. The doubters were wrong. The educators I deal with have proved to be unfailingly honest. Mistakes are rare. But the biggest so far just happened. The IDEA Public Schools charter network in Texas told me it provided incorrect numbers of Advanced Placement tests at six of its schools for the 2017 list published in May.

“As a result, the five IDEA schools that were in the top 10 have dropped several places on the corrected list. “We messed up,” said IDEA founder and chief executive Tom Torkelson.”

Actually, IDEA has a documented history of overstating its success. Ed Fuller, a professor at Penn State formerly at the University of Texas, debunked the IDEA claim that 100% of its graduates were accepted into four-year colleges.

Ed Fuller wrote on his blog:

“IDEA Charter School markets itself as a college preparatory education organization with goals of enrolling 100% of graduates in four-year universities and have 100% persistence and graduation rates in college.[1] Indeed, in the introduction of the most recent annual report, Dr. Tom Torkelson, CEO of IDEA Public Schools, makes the following statement:

“IDEA puts students on path to succeed in an increasingly competitive global marketplace by providing a rigorous college preparatory education and preparing our low-income, Hispanic and minority students in under-served communities across Texas to apply, matriculate and succeed in a the four year college or university of their choice. To date, 100% of IDEA graduates have been accepted to a four-year college or university and our student (sic) are demonstrating remarkable staying power: 92% are either still in college or have graduated.[2]

“Further, on page six of the report, the claim is made that, “ . . . for the fifth year in a row, 100% of IDEA graduates enrolled in four-year colleges and universities, fulfilling IDEA’s mission of College For All Children.”[3]

“Yet, these claims are demonstrably false, the report fails to cite any data sources or studies that substantiate the claims, and the report fails to report publicly available data on the performance of students in four-year universities. The remainder of this short report substantiates my claims made about statements included in the IDEA annual report and provides data from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board about the Performance of IDEA Public School graduates in Texas four-year universities.”

Fuller goes on to show that 100% of IDEA graduates did not enroll in four-year colleges, and many of these students performed very poorly in college.

Given IDEA’s history of boasts and overstatements, why should Jay Mathews accept its self-reported data?

How many other self-reported errors are hidden in those rankings? Carol wonders if Jay is rewarding charters that push kids out who can’t or won’t take the AP courses. She thinks he should create two separate lists: one for charters, which have the power to choose and exclude their students; another for public schools that accept all students. I would suggest a third category: selective public schools. How can anyone fairly compare a comprehensive high school that accepts all who apply, with a selective high school that admits only those who pass an examination? How can anyone fairly compare charter schools with high attrition rates–weeding out low performers– to those public schools that enroll students with disabilities and students who are learning English, as well as children who are homeless.

I don’t see the purpose of ranking selective high schools and non-selective high schools. I’m having trouble understanding the value of the rankings no matter how they are reported.

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