Evaluating Westchester's Public High Schools
The Stats, The Programs, The Facts
Let's step back for just a minute.
Take a deep breath, relax, and stop glancing over your neighbor's shoulder. Toss aside your dog-eared copies of U.S. News & World Report, Worth magazine-¨Canything, in fact, that purports to rank the county'ss local high schools by measures based on how many Advanced Placement courses are offered to students, how many graduates attend Harvard, Yale or Princeton, or what the average SAT score was and think about what makes for a good public high school.
Ultimately, in judging a high school, it's what happens during the four years that students spend in that high school is not the college bumper sticker that eventually gets placed on the family car that matters. And the ingredients that go into that experience, on a day-to-day basis, aren't necessarily ones that are easy to quantify or that fit neatly on a chart. Which is not to say that SAT scores, and the number of students who attend prestigious and highly selective colleges, don't matter. No one is naive enough to suggest that those aren't significant or meaningful when people evaluate successful high schools.
But how meaningful? How important are the scores a school's students get on a standardized test in determining how good the school is? How significant, for that matter, is the amount of money a school spends on its students? What about a school's Advanced Placement program, or its extracurricular activities, or the number of teachers it has with advanced degrees? In other words, how do you evaluate a school?
For the third year, Westchester Magazine has set out to answer that question. We talked to college administrators, and educators, and educational consultants, plus a host of other experts and found that most everyone concurs. Unfortunately what they concur on is that assessing a school's performance is not a simple matter. Clearly, with 44 public high schools, which enroll about 40,000 students, there's no one answer to the question of what makes for a successful school.
Undeterred, however, and with the guidance of those experts, we have tried to present parents and students (and inevitably alumni, college admissions officers, taxpayers and even real estate agents) with some suggestions on how to go about the very difficult business of figuring out whether a public high school is doing a good job.
Standards in this county are, we should note, very high. Historically, Westchester has had some of the best public high schools in the country, says David Borus, dean of Admission and Financial Aid at
We begin our guide with some thoughts on how to read the numbers, provided at the request of Westchester Magazine by, with few exceptions, the schools themselves. (They are collected in the chart on page 38.) We try, here, to indicate their strengths as a means of judging a school and their weaknesses. Then we move beyond the numbers.
Can statistics lie? Of course. If the students in a particular high school do extremely well on standardized tests, is that because they are receiving a brilliant education or is it because they come from homes that expose them to the things these tests often measure? And given the way education is funded in this country, wealthier school districts inevitably have more of the resources and advantages these statistics tend to measure.
In other words, there are factors over which a school has no control that will affect how well it ranks by these standards. A great principal, working with the most dedicated teachers, in a poorer district, still will not be able to compete, statistically, with a high school in a relatively rich district. Anyone trying to rate a school by the numbers must keep that in mind. Nevertheless, the numbers are one place someone trying to evaluate a school can start. (Unfortunately, six schools refused to supply the information we requested; see page 38.)
Average SAT Scores
With all their limitations, results on the basic SAT test the part that is supposed to measure aptitude, not achievement do provide a glimpse of the average academic smarts of the student body at a school. A total score of 1600 on the two parts of the tests verbal and math is perfect. The lowest possible score is 400. Nationwide the average score is 1020. In
For the most part, that is not surprising.
¡°You tell me the social economic status of the student population, and I'll tell you what their SAT scores are, says Jonathon Gillette,
In a wealthy neighborhood, parents are more likely to have gone to college and to use around the house the sort of vocabulary SATs mention. And parents with money are more likely to pay for prep courses that can improve scores on these tests. ¡°We see the most students exactly where you'd expect to, says David Cerniglia, assistant director of outreach for The Princeton Review test-prep program in
Another factor to consider when looking at a school's average SAT scores is what percentage of the students there actually took the test. At Ardsley only 83 percent did. Assuming the ones who didn't take the test would have done worse, that raised the average.
Pleasantville, where 100 percent of the students take the SATs, had the biggest increase in SAT scores this year: Its average went from 1076 to 1117.
This statistic, developed by education writer Jay Mathews, divides the number of Advanced Placement tests taken at a school by the number of graduating seniors. The higher the index, the higher the percentage of students who are being challenged by Advanced Placement college level courses. Advanced Placement courses are the traditional marker for excellence in a school, states Gillette. In Westchester, the schools that did best on the Challenge Index this year were Edgemont (3.67308), Horace Greeley (3.23984),
The Challenge Index also has its limitations. The number of Advanced Placement tests taken by students tells you only half the story, argues Borus of Vassar. It doesn't, his point is, tell you how well students are doing on those tests and, therefore, how good a school's Advanced Placement courses are. And richer schools with students from more privileged backgrounds will inevitably offer more Advanced Placement work.
Class size is commonly used to determine the quality of a school. The smaller the class size, the bigger the impact the teacher can have, says Ed Lichtenfeld, an adjunct professor at
In Westchester this year, the smallest average class sizes were found at Fox Lane High (16), Pleasantville (16), Walter Panas (16.4), Dobbs Ferry (17), Briarcliff (18) and
But here again, forces beyond a district's control such as budgetary constraints, contractual arrangements with faculty, and increasing enrollment¡ªmay make small class size a difficult goal to achieve. And once again, money helps. ¡°Some communities are willing to pay for the additional teachers needed to keep class size lower, says Stephen Falcone, principal of
In most cases, the richer the school district, the more it can spend on children. If that money is spent wisely, there is no doubt it can help. As a general rule, Gillette of Yale's Teacher Preparation program says, the more money spent, the better. To support his point, he notes that schools in
The schools that spent the most on their students this year were
But beware! How much a school spends on a child can be affected by such non-curricular expenses as security, transportation, construction, etc... And some expenditures may be low because the school has few non-curricular expenses. For example, non-bussing school districts like Pleasantville tend to have low student expenditures because they save money on transportation.
It is a huge advantage if high school teachers have advanced degrees, maintains Gillette. It means they know their subject in depth. It means they've done original work in their subject.
The Westchester public schools that had the highest percentage of
faculty members with PhDs were: Pleasantville (9%), Tuckahoe (8%) and
Still, most high school teachers manage to teach their subjects intelligently without putting in all the years it takes to get a doctorate. And not all teachers with PhDs, of course, can communicate what they know to a classroom filled with restless sixteen year olds. Some smart people can't teach their way out of a brown paper bag, Gillette acknowledges.
This was the first year Westchester Magazine asked schools to report the percentage of their faculty who hold doctoral degrees.
Students Going on to Four-Year Colleges
A school that sends almost all of its students on to four-year colleges must necessarily be preparing them well. And the standards at such schools may be higher, pressures on students to achieve more intense.
Here are the public high schools that sent the highest percentage of students on to four-year colleges in 2002: Bronxville (99%), Blind Brook (98%), Briarcliff (98%), Edgemont (97%), Horace Greeley (95%),
Of course, towns where the most parents themselves attended four-year colleges are more likely to send the most students to four-year colleges. Indeed, students have an edge when applying to a school if their parents went there; legacies they're called. Legacies do have a somewhat higher acceptance rate than regular students, acknowledges Larry Lamphere, assistant dean of Admissions and Advising at
And sending a student to a private four-year college takes the kind of money that is more available in some communities than in others. In 2001/2002, the average cost to send a child to a four-year college was $17,123 a 35.9 percent increase over the cost 10 years ago. That's why, even in the sixth wealthiest county in the nation, a two-year college, Westchester Community College, is the most popular destination for high school graduates.
According to Marcia M. Lee of Westchester Community College's Office of Institutional Research and Planning, 52 percent of WCC graduates in 2001 went on to four-year colleges.
Percent Receiving Regents Diploma
This is another, fairly straightforward, measure of achievement. To get a Regents diploma, students have to pass Regents exams. The percent of students who receive Regents diplomas is a fairly accurate portrait of the difficulty of a high school and of that school's ability to challenge its students, says Borus at Vassar.
Among the biggest increases this year in this category were: Rye Neck (40%
to 82%) and Saunders in
The numbers in our chart are just a way of getting at something complex, often obscure, even mysterious: the culture of a school. How engaged, motivated, enthusiastic, hard working, open minded and bright are the students, faculty and administrators?
There are other ways of getting at that. We mention some of them here. We also mention a few schools there are, of course, many others that seem to be doing well by each of these much more subjective standards.
It's very complicated, says Cerniglia of The Princeton Review. There is a lot to consider. We're testing students to death and we're testing teachers to death, and there are still qualities in a school that are unquantifiable. Many times the success of a high school comes down to each student's comfort level.
Visiting a prospective high school is as beneficial as visiting a prospective college, notes Larry Mayer, interim principal of
High schools should hum with the buzz of productively engaged students and their faculty advisers and coaches¡ªnot only all day, but through the evenings and even on Saturdays. Are students welcome to arrive early and stay late, with sufficient supervision available for them? Schools like
Students can also use electives to discover what they are really good at. Says Paul Martin of
Among the electives Mamaroneck offers are: current events, photography, performing arts, architecture, a survey of engineering, fashion, forensics, and even TV production (
Thyra L. Briggs, dean of Admissions at
However, Lamphere, assistant admission dean at Cornell takes a different view of electives. "We like to see students taking the most challenging curriculum that the school offers, but we also think the more well-rounded a student is the better," he says. If we get an application from a student who wants to study engineering, and also plays the tuba, we might admit him partly based on his broad range of interests.
Clubs, athletics, student government and activities are such an integral component of the
Besides the full complement of sports for both boys and girls 25 teams and student government opportunities, the school's 1,848 students can select among the Irish Awareness Club, Black Awareness Club, Italian Club, Latino Advancement Coalition (none of which, by the way, is limited to students of that ethnicity), theater, songwriting, TV production, photography, literary publications, various music groups, an environmental club, and community service and volunteer organizations, like the Midnight Run and Key Club. All these clubs and organizations are sponsored by the school.
There are about 1,650 students who participate in at least one activity, notes Paula Dalto, the students activities coordinator at
Yale's Gillette remarks that extracurricular activities are not extra. They are essential.
The school recently sponsored a special events day for the entire student body in conjunction with Pleasantville's
One measure of a superior public high school is the opportunities it provides to its students to participate in programs outside the building. For example, many local high schools have embraced the Science Research Program, a course that enables interested students to do scientific research under the supervision of professional scientists. (See °5 Notable Programs, page 41).
Thanks to the county's proximity to