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Beware ‘less-than-best’ schools – Pacific Research Institute

Beware ‘less-than-best’ schools

FORBES magazine recently released another popular “best” list, this one rating the top suburbs in America. The selections derive from several factors, including school quality. The indicators, however, do not necessarily guarantee a top-quality school.

Forbes’ analysis looked at graduation rates, per-pupil spending, and student-to-teacher ratios. However, none of this trio of variables indicates high student performance, which is why it’s surprising that Forbes neglected to include an indicator for student achievement and test scores.

Thus, while graduating from high school is better than not graduating, the key question is whether students from these “best” suburbs are prepared for the higher education their parents want them to achieve. The California State University System is reserved for the top third of high-school graduates, but a full 60 percent of CSU freshmen need remedial instruction in math or English. Many of these students come from the very suburbs listed by Forbes.

It comes as no shock to find Beverly Hills on the Forbes list, but at Beverly Hills High School only 10 percent of the school’s 11th graders taking the California State University’s Early Assessment Program (EAP) exam, which informs students about their preparedness for college-level work, scored at the college-ready level in English in 2006.

One finds a similar story for Santa Monica, another California suburb on the Forbes list. In 2006 at Santa Monica High,

barely half of the school’s 11th graders – just 52 percent – scored at the proficient level in English on the California Standards Test (CST), the state’s main standardized test. Worse, a dismal 17 percent of 11th graders at the school scored at the college-ready level in English on the EAP exam.

Given these disquieting student-achievement results, it’s unsurprising to discover little evidence that education-spending levels and lower student-to-teacher ratios impact student performance. “The relationship between dollars and student achievement in California is so uncertain that it cannot be used to gauge the potential effect of resources on student outcomes,” concluded a widely publicized study released last year by Stanford University. A state-commissioned analysis found no relationship between lower student-to-teacher ratios and student achievement.

The Forbes list, meanwhile, isn’t the only one off-target when it comes to pinpointing high-quality schools. Last year, U.S. News and World Report issued its first-ever ranking of America’s top 100 high schools. However, there are important student-achievement question marks at a number of California public schools on the U.S. News list.

At the 82nd-ranked school, San Marino High, a commendable 86 percent of 11th graders in 2006 scored at or above the proficient level on the CST English exam. However, a surprisingly anemic 48 percent of 11th graders at the school scored at the college-ready mark on the EAP English test.

At 89th-ranked Palos Verdes Peninsula High, 69 percent of the school’s 11th graders scored at or above the proficient level on the 2006 English CST, but just 44 percent hit the college-ready mark on the English EAP. At 93rd-ranked Palos Verdes High, two-thirds of 11th graders scored at or above the proficient level on the English CST, but just one-third taking the English EAP scored at the college-ready level.

This performance data emerged from the Pacific Research Institute’s recent book “Not as Good as You Think: Why the Middle Class Needs School Choice.” This book explains why parents in affluent neighborhoods should not feel self-satisfied. At the “best” schools, in the “best” suburbs, many students fail to perform well on either state subject-matter tests or college-readiness exams.

These parents may discover that school-choice options such as vouchers and private-school tuition tax credits are not just issues for low-income families in inner cities. As school choice becomes more popular, Forbes should add a list for “Best School-Choice Programs.”

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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