Art Rainwater didn’t want us to do this.
“I cannot imagine anything more destructive to how hard people in this community are trying to work together,” the city’s school superintendent said when we called to ask him the best way to compare Dane County’s high schools.
It’s lost on no one, least of all Rainwater, that education is increasingly a game of numbers, that numerals have practically replaced consonants in our national dialogue on schools.
Take the feds, who are at this moment gathering mountains of data on schools to satisfy the requirements of No Child Left Behind. Add the state, which harvests a bumper crop of test scores and school statistics each year. And throw in the institutions themselves; while they understandably don’t like statistics because numbers can never tell the whole story, high schools still, for example, condense the whole story of every senior into one make-or-break number: the class rank. (And don’t let any school tell you it doesn’t–whether by actual number or by some version of a “grade-distribution” grid, high school guidance counselors routinely document for colleges where a given student ranks scholastically in relation to his or her peers.)
For numbers you need– and can actually use–we turned to experts: parents, counselors, principals, consultants. Does academic achievement matter when it comes to ranking schools? Absolutely, say college admissions advisors and parents. So we included each school’s average score on the state Knowledge and Concepts Exam and on the national ACT test. How about a school’s overall learning environment? Some of the ways to measure that, say the consultants, are to look at graduation rates, student-to-teacher ratios, and the number of courses and advanced-placement courses offered by each school. How about measuring a climate that’s more cultural than academic? Take extracurriculars into account, advise experts. Schools that offer a healthy number of sports programs and academic and social clubs accomplish two things at once: They give students good chances to participate and they enrich the overall fabric of the school.