High School Report Card
SATs, RaMPs, PhDs... We give you all the stats, info, and explanation you need to evaluate your local high school.
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Photography by John Rizzo
How good is your town’s high school? That depends on how you define “good.” But if you ask the experts what makes a school good, the answer is universal: engaged students.
What does that mean? It means that kids go to school because they want to, not because they have to. They do their homework because it helps them, not because it’s required. They spend extra time in clubs and sports because they like them, not because it will look good on a college résumé. Sound idyllic? Of course it is—we’re talking about teenagers here, not-quite-fully formed human beings with raging hormones and role models who spend most of their time in rehab. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t schools trying to engage these kids—and more than a few that are actually succeeding.
You might think that measuring something as subjective as “engagement” is impossible, but it’s not. It’s difficult but doable, according to the experts we consulted. Once they gave us some signs to look for, we asked the 44 public high schools in Westchester to give us data that reflected that elusive quality. We also talked to educators around the country to find out what the numbers on the chart starting on page 60 really mean to students and parents.
Nearly every school was helpful, and most cautioned against comparing one school to another. More than one supplied data but refused to discuss it. Barbara Scaros, director of the Edith Winthrop Teacher Center of Westchester, explains why: “Schools are so complicated and their populations and parent populations are so different that to put them on the same list is kind of like trying to determine who is the best parent. ‘Your kids are polite, but mine has better handwriting.’”
Comparing schools is particularly pointless in Westchester, she says, “where you have, on the one hand, the Masters of the Universe from Bedford and Katonah and, on the other, working-class people from Yonkers and Mount Vernon who send their kids to school with no less hope but a lot less accoutrements.”
Nevertheless, the information we gathered still is useful to parents trying to choose the high school that would most likely satisfy their children’s needs best. It serves no purpose to compare the SAT scores from Armonk’s Byram Hills to those from Chappaqua’s Horace Greeley, but it is useful to know what those scores mean and how to best interpret them.
We looked at data in three broad areas. First, we looked at standardized test scores, particularly the SAT and NY Regents exams. Second, we looked at socioeconomic factors including average household income in each school district, how much each school spends on educating its students, and how well educated each district’s teaching staff is. Finally, we collected information that would help us determine how Westchester high schools “engaged” their students. These included the four-year graduation rate, the ratio of students to guidance counselors, the number of students involved in extracurricular activities, and how many college-level courses were offered.
No one criterion can be used to determine if your kid’s school is “good.” Taken together, though, these measures will give you a feel for their high school experience.
One of the most frequently used criteria for judging a school’s success is its students’ performance on the SAT (Scholastic Assessment Tests) Reasoning Test given to college-bound juniors and seniors. More than two million students take the test each year. Indeed, it’s the nation’s most widely taken standardized college admissions test, according to The College Board, a not-for-profit association composed of more than 5,400 schools, colleges, universities, and other educational organizations, that administers the test. The exam covers reading, writing, and mathematics, with each section scored from 200 to 800. Nationwide, average scores for each section are typically around 500; this year, they were 530 in Westchester.
“SAT scores are a weak predictor of college success,” says Dr. Leslie Soodak, professor of Education and chair of the Department of Education at Pace University’s Pleasantville Campus. “We’re all realistically cautious about their use.” The caution is well placed. According to a report released by Fair Test, a two-decades-old advocacy organization fighting to reform assessments in the United States, “the University of Pennsylvania looked at the power of high school class rank, SAT I, and SAT II in predicting cumulative college GPAs. Researchers found that the SAT I was by far the weakest predictor.” The report maintains that the best predictor of college success was not the Big Test, but a student’s class rank.
But, fair or not, SATs are still one of the tools many colleges use in today’s ruthlessly competitive college admissions process. Before comparing our local schools with this metric, there are several caveats, with which even the College Board agrees. The most important is the nature of the group who takes the SAT—they are almost invariably students who are college-bound. While that includes the majority of high schoolers, it is by no means all of them. That matters when it comes to comparing schools based on SAT scores, since they will reveal nothing about those students who don’t take them, obviously, which in some districts can be a significant number.
Something else to keep in mind: students have several strategies for improving their SAT scores, most of which favor those whose parents have pretty deep pockets. Don’t think you did well? You can cancel your score within a few days of taking the test, although you won’t get your money back. Even if you let the scores ride, you can re-take the test and probably do better—just pay the fees again. The test itself is $45, with additional fees for various types of processing and reporting that can add up to a couple hundred dollars. The College Board says the average student who re-tests increases his or her combined scores by approximately 40 points.