July 17, 2018
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US News & World Report rankings used inaccurate data for Maine schools

Courtesy of Jessica Baker
Courtesy of Jessica Baker
Luke Shorty, executive director of the Maine School and Science and Mathematics, is surrounded by students and staff at the Limestone magnet school in a recent photo. Officials at MSSM announced earlier this week that U.S. News & World Report ranked the establishment as the 38th best high school in the nation. The ranking, which includes nearly 22,000 schools in 49 states and the District of Columbia, measures how well schools prepare students for college and how well they serve disadvantaged students. The publication also ranked MSSM the nation's ninth best magnet school, the second best magnet school in New England and Maine’'s top high school.
By Nick McCrea, BDN Staff

BANGOR, Maine — Some Maine education administrators are perplexed by this year’s ranking of high schools by U.S. News & World Report after they learned some of the data used to create the list appear to be inaccurate or missing.

The national media company on Tuesday released its list of the country’s top high schools, including 17 in Maine, but the selections and exclusions quickly raised questions.

The biggest oddity involved Brewer High School, which jumped from unranked last year to No. 5 in Maine and No. 669 in the nation, according to the U.S. News list. According to the 2012-13 data used to make that list, Brewer only had 384 students, making its student teacher ratio a very favorable 8:1.

In reality, Brewer had closer to 735 students that year, according to Maine Department of Education Data.

In an email to school officials after the rankings were released on May 12, Brewer Superintendent Jay McIntire speculated that the inaccurate enrollment number U.S. News pulled might have only included Brewer resident students. But that method doesn’t appear to be repeated in most other schools.

McIntire said that the rankings should be taken with a “big grain of salt,” but also cited other recent accomplishments by the school, including a top-2-percent ranking of its Air Force ROTC program and its robotics team qualifying for world championships.

Also of interest is Maine School of Science and Mathematics’ disappearance from the list this year after being ranked 14th-best in the country in 2014. This came in spite of maintaining strong performances on testing and college preparedness.

MSSM Executive Director Luke Shorty said Thursday that the school has been in touch with U.S. News and the Maine Department of Education and is “digging to figure out what happened.”

MSSM had an unusually small junior class in 2012-13, which is the year of data U.S. News looked at to compile its 2015 list. MSSM had just 19 students take the SAT that year. Performance on state tests is one of the measures used to build the list.

It appears that U.S. News lacked data on student performance on the SAT. That’s likely because that information is restricted by the Maine Department of Education when fewer than 10 students fall into certain categories in reading or math proficiency to prevent individual students from being identified through the data. Restricted data was a relatively common problem among schools with small enrollment numbers, according to U.S. News.

The school also received an “N/A” in place of a teacher count. It’s unclear why that happened, but it could have something to do with the fact that MSSM has adjunct faculty.

“We’re trying to drill down to find out where they get their teacher numbers from,” Shorty said.

Future MSSM classes should be larger, as the school in Limestone has had an enrollment increase in recent years, and now has about 145 students, according to Shorty.

Also falling out of the ratings was Orono High School, which was listed as the ninth-best school in Maine last year.

After Orono wasn’t included in this year’s rankings, school officials looked at the data cited in the school overview on the U.S. News website and found that its enrollment figures were incorrect, according to Principal Jim Chasse.

Total enrollment was listed at 485, in reality it was closer to 360. Chasse said the minority and free-and-reduced lunch percentages also were off. Chasse said he didn’t check the numbers last year, and the 2014 figures were pulled down from the U.S. News site when it posted the 2015 results.

Chasse said he even checked the results for a high school in Orono, Minnesota, to make sure there wasn’t a mix-up, but those results didn’t match either.

A U.S. News spokeswoman referred to a methodology explanation on the U.S. News website when questioned about where the organization found its numbers and why some appear to be so far off.

U.S. News’ ranking system was implemented by North Carolina-based research institute RTI International. It reviewed data from 29,000 public high schools across the country. Those deemed “too small to be analyzed” were eliminated, bringing the count to about 19,700.

RTI took three steps to rank those schools. First, it looked at reading and math results on state proficiency tests — in Maine’s case in 2013, that was the SAT. It paired those up against the percentage of free-and-reduced-lunch students. Schools that performed “better than statistical expectations” moved on to the next step of analysis, which looked at whether disadvantaged students at the school were outperforming other disadvantaged students in the state.

Step three looked at “college readiness” by reviewing Advanced Placement test numbers and performance. Student-teacher ratios also played a factor in the ratings, which is why incorrect enrollment data likely affected the outcomes of the ratings.

The methodology says the enrollment and demographic data was taken from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. What’s unclear is why some of that data was incorrect.

A message left with RTI seeking comment Thursday was not immediately returned.

In the past when the federal government or states notified U.S. News of errors contained in the data it used, the organization has corrected those errors and updated its ratings.

Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.


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