Iowa has six of Newsweek's top 1,500 U.S. public high schools

Newsweek published its annual list of the top 1,500 public high schools in the country this week. Iowa has six schools on the list: Cedar Rapids Washington (number 477), Cedar Rapids Kennedy (732), Iowa City West (846), Ames (923), West Des Moines Valley (1389), and Mid-Prairie of Wellman (1468).

A simple formula determined the rankings:

Public schools are ranked according to a ratio devised by Jay Mathews: the number of Advanced Placement, Intl. Baccalaureate and/or Cambridge tests taken by all students at a school in 2008 divided by the number of graduating seniors. All of the schools on the list have an index of at least 1.000; they are in the top 6 percent of public schools measured this way.

Note that this formula doesn’t tell you how well each school’s students did on the tests; it merely indicates how broad a segment of the school’s population is being prepared for college-level work. It also doesn’t give you any sense of other qualities in a high school, such as the range of extracurricular activities available.

Still, it’s important for high schools to prepare kids for college. Congratulations to the Iowa school districts that make advanced work available to a large percentage of students, especially in a small town like Wellman (population under 1,500 in Washington County).

Selective schools such as magnets and charters dominate the top of Newsweek’s list. While these are technically public schools, they are not comparable to schools that accept all students living within certain geographic boundaries. Most of the highest-ranked schools are in metropolitan areas larger than any Iowa city.

On the other hand, the fact that only one Iowa school cracked the top 500 on this list is a wake-up call to Iowans who consider our public schools the best in the country.

Speaking of Advanced Placement courses, Rachael Giertz had a good letter to the editor of the Des Moines Register a few weeks ago. It’s not still available on the Register’s website, but Giertz mentioned one downside for students who pile up AP credits in high school. Those credits help students finish college faster, but they may not count as courses passed on graduate school applications. Many graduate schools (rightly, in my opinion) don’t consider an AP course passed in high school equivalent to the same course taken in college.

  • thank you

    for the mention!  I still have the text of the letter so I will post it as a diary with a few of my (rambling) thoughts and experiences.

  • My concern with this formula

    is that it’s focused exclusively at what schools are doing for high-achieving students.  As an educator, I think the best schools are those that are achieving results with students across the achievement spectrum, including those with learning difficulties, language acquisition barriers, and at-risk factors.  Harder to measure, certainly, but ultimately a broader indication of how well a school is preparing its students for the world beyond its walls.

    This kind of list, to my mind, does a good job of giving real estate agents something to tick off on a checklist for re-locating families.  (“Good” schools?  Check!)  Certainly, congratulations are in order for the Iowa schools that made the list, and I admire AP teachers immensely.  AP classes are an important part of a school’s overall offerings, but as a measure of how good a school is, especially as a single consideration for putting it on a list in a national magazine?  Eh…

  • For whatever it's worth...

    My alma mater, Suncoast High School, came in at number 7 on this year’s list.  It was a fine school, but certainly not actually the seventh best school in the country.  These rankings are mostly based on AP and IB test scores.  At Suncoast, every student was forced to take a battery of those tests before they graduated, because certain school funding formulae in Florida are based on the scores (teachers themselves actually got a bonus for each student who passed one of the tests, and with classes of 30-40 kids, it was a significant amount of money).  So teachers taught to the AP and IB tests, and the school became an IB diploma factory.

    It didn’t make the education necessarily better or worse, but it helped game the system to get more funding and a better ranking on the Newsweek list.  Nobody I know from the school — alumni, students, parents, or faculty — has much faith in this stuff.

  • Des Moines Roosevelt

    Not in this list?  When Valley is in this list?  My Ass.   The other schools are not surprising – Ames, IC West, CR Kennedy & Wash, are excellent high schools.

    • Flawed list...

      You can bet it would be on the list, along with IC City and a bunch of other schools if these rankings would separate magnet schools out of the list.

      I mean, how can even top-notch schools like IC West and CR Kennedy compete with schools like the Albert Einstein School for the Incredibly Gifted?  

    • hey, don't knock Valley (my alma mater)

      They have some good teachers there.

      But you are correct, Roosevelt is an excellent school. It’s a lot more diverse than Valley too, which is a plus.

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