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Ranking high schools tells you which schools are rich or selective

Ranking high schools makes very little sense.
Ranking high schools makes very little sense.
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

I went to the 297th-best public high school in America. I know this because the Daily Beast recently ranked the 700 top public high schools in the US.

Is that good? Well, there are almost 25,000 public high schools in America, so being no. 297 — while hardly a stirring chant — isn't too bad.

What do I do with this fact (other than maybe share it on Facebook)? I have no idea. And that's why the recent spread of rankings mania to high schools makes no sense at all.

The Washington Post has ranked high schools based on a "challenge index" of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate tests for years. Newsweek and the Daily Beast also rank high schools based on a host of factors. And when you look at the rankings, a few things jump out:

The best high schools have a few things in common

The public schools that top these lists are mostly selective magnet schools that get to pick which students they educate. If they're not, they're much likely to enroll fewer poor students than public schools as a whole.

This is not a nefarious bias on the part of the editors. Sadly, it's the truth: If you're going to get a great public school education in America, it helps to be really smart, well-off, or both.

The Daily Beast's top 10 includes only one school where more than half of students get free or reduced-price lunches. Almost all high schools on both lists are magnet high schools with admissions exams. The exception are the BASIS charter schools, which enroll students through a lottery but have a reputation for intense academics.

Thomas Jefferson High School, which tops Newsweek's list, is a double whammy. It has selective admissions and a student body where only 2 percent of the students live in poverty. But Thomas Jefferson isn't a public school in any meaningful sense. It's not open to all comers, just to students with high enough test scores. And it's in a school district where the typical home sells for almost half a million dollars. You have to run two gauntlets just to get in the door.

The high school market isn't national

Colleges pick and choose their students too. And the best colleges do have disproportionately wealthy student bodies. But high schools are different from colleges in one key way.

College rankings, at least in theory, are responding to a need in the market. Students applying to prestigious, selective colleges — particularly students who have the academic qualifications and the financial means to go to college anywhere — have quite a few to choose from. Enter rankings, a way to sort through it all.

Public high school doesn't work this way. The most useful information for you is what the best high school in your city, state, or school district is. If you're the parent of a smart kid in Scottsdale, Arizona, who cares more about academics than anything else, you might try to get into the BASIS Charter School via lottery. If you're the parent of the same kid but live in Fairfax, Virginia, you'll probably try to get them into Thomas Jefferson. It doesn't matter at all — to you or anybody else — which is actually the "best" high school in the US.

And, of course, knowing what the best high school is doesn't matter if you can't afford to live in its attendance area or if you don't have the test scores to get in.

Most of these factors are out of schools' control

So if high school rankings don't help anybody, do they serve any purpose besides being fun? In theory, they could be a gold star for schools that are doing something right. Newsweek put actual gold stars on its list to denote schools where low-income students are high performers on tests.

The problem is that most of this isn't about what the schools themselves are doing. Their student body's wealth, smarts, or both are the biggest factor. Many of the other factors that go into educating a student are out of the school's control.

Schools in traditional districts can't put up a bond issue for better facilities or raise taxes to spend more on education. The difference for individual schools could depend on principals or faculty, but it probably also comes down to the students. My school district, for example, didn't just have high school no. 297; it had nos. 584, 683, 688, and 708. This is almost exactly the same result you'd get if you sorted the high schools from richest to poorest.

If schools can't control most of what they're ranked on, they can't game the rankings. Given the appalling things colleges do to climb the ranks, that's almost certainly a good thing. But it also means that they can't aim to do better in the future.

Publications know they're mostly ranking on wealth and selectivity. It's why there are separate lists for schools that actually enroll low-income students in both the Daily Beast and Newsweek rankings. So why do it?

Because everybody loves rankings. And because nearly everybody went to public high school. And because most people are friends with high school classmates on Facebook, where they will eagerly share lists of where their alma mater is ranked. For all of their complex statistical methodology, high school rankings are really just sheer entertainment.

In other words, nobody should take these rankings seriously — and nobody should expect them to go away any time soon.