10 January, 2010

Another reason to move to Mississippi

According to US News & World Report, Mississippi is the second-best state at giving as many students as possible an above-average education.

Well, no, not really. But it can look that way if you don't pay attention to too many details. On page 75 of the January 2010 issue, we find a table that ranks schools. When sorted by the column, "Silver or better (% of total)", the list looks like,

1. Connecticut
2. Massachusetts
3. California
4. New Jersey
5. New York
45. Mississippi
46. Kansas
47. (tie) Hawaii, North Dakota, Montana

No surprise, right? (Two states, Nebraska and Oklahoma, weren't ranked.)

But, look! Another column is labeled, "Bronze or better (% of total)". What happens when you sort the list by that column?

1. Hawaii
2. Mississippi
3. West Virginia
4. New Mexico
5. Arkansas
45. Florida
46. (tie) Maryland, Minnesota
48. Ohio
49. Nevada

See, Mississippi is ranked second!

Say what?

I don't consider Mississippi a third-world country, but neither do I think its schools are that impressive. More to the point, there has to be a reason that U.S. News decided to rank by silver or better instead of bronze or better (or gold or better), n'est pas?

The criteria appear on p. 77.
  • For a bronze medal, a school had to meet two criteria:
    1. Whether each school's students were performing better than statistically expected for the average student in the state. This includes reading and math scores, throwing in some voodoo statistics related to the percentage of economically disadvantaged students.
    2. Whether the school's least advantaged students were performing better than average for similar students in the state. Here, "least advantaged" translates to black, Hispanic, and low incomce.
  • For a silver medal, a school had to achieve a certain score on USNWR's college readiness index, which is determined by the school's participation rate in AP or IB tests and their performance on that test.
  • For a gold medal, a school had to place in the top 100 scores on the college readiness index.
In other words, the gold and silver medals are based on national exams which earn students university-level credit. So these criteria are valid for a national comparison.

A bronze medal compares results in a state, and is good news for the school that receives it. But it's nearly meaningless for a national comparison except (perhaps) inversely. That is, one could argue instead that the more bronze medals a state has in proportion to the number of schools, the worse a job the state is doing at educating its children.

How? To win the bronze medal, a school has to perform better than average for the state. A high proportion of bronze medals in the state implies that a high proportion of schools are outperforming the others in that state (not in the nation). This implies disparities in educational attainment: instead of all schools doing more or less okay, a few schools are doing very well, while the rest are doing "average for the state, or worse" (and quite possibly a high proportion are doing much worse).

I suspect that the people who ran these numbers were aware of this, which is why they ranked by Silver or higher, instead of by Bronze or higher.

Having said that, if you actually visit the web pages of some local high schools, they write under "Test performance" for AP & IB, "Not applicable" or "Not available", respectively, which looks weird. I'm guessing (and this is only a guess) that if your school was merely bronze, they didn't post this information. I've only seen it for silver or higher. But I haven't looked that much.

Oh, well. My son's school isn't on the list; private schools don't count, I reckon. My old high school isn't on the list, either.

In news that probably won't affect my career whatsoever, UNSWR also ranks my grad school among the top 50 in the nation for both math and computer science.

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