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Can Private Schools Be Ranked?


Can Private Schools Be Ranked?
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While many news outlets such as Forbes have ranked the nation’s private schools in recent years, these rankings tend to have limited utility for parents looking for the right school for their child. In the first place, rankings don’t tell parents much that they didn’t know, as it’s already clear which schools are the most prestigious or get the greatest number of students into Ivy League colleges or their equivalents. In addition, unless parents are looking at boarding schools, parents are considering a local sample of schools, so a national ranking is of limited use. Here are other reasons why private school rankings are of little use to most parents looking for the best school for their child:

The Criteria in the Rankings is Flawed

Many ranking systems use very limited data. For example, the rankings in Forbes ranked the top twenty private schools in the United States by first selecting their own list of 55 schools (perhaps largely based on the schools’ reputations). To further refine the list, Forbes simply compiled statistics such as the student-faculty ratio, the percentage of faculty who held advanced degrees, the size of the schools’ endowments, and the percentage of graduates who went on to ten “top” schools, mostly in the Ivy League.

This type of data is of very limited use for a number of reasons. First, many students are admitted to colleges because they are legacies, meaning that their parents attended these schools. Children of well-to-do parents tend to do better in college admissions, in part because they’ve had a lot of advantages and in part because many of them are legacies. Therefore, it’s not clear whether these students were accepted into Ivy League or other top colleges because of the education they received at private schools or because of the high status of their parents, which they would have enjoyed no matter which school they attended for high school.

In addition, statistics such as the size of the school’s endowment or the percentage of faculty members with advanced degrees, while somewhat useful, are of less use when considering the type of education one particular child will receive at that school. For example, some teachers with advanced degrees may still not be very good teachers, particularly for your child. We’ve all met teachers who have a number of credentials but who still can’t reach their students. And while large endowments often mean a school can afford resources, some schools with large endowments are still not a good fit for one particular child.

The Rankings Are Too Generic

The reality is that most private schools don’t release a lot of internal data about how their students are performing, simply because they don’t have to. For example, many private schools do not release data about college admissions, while others do, and other schools do not release data about how their students perform on useful metrics such as ERBs in New York City, which are achievement tests. Without this type of recent, relevant data, most of the information about how a particular school’s students are faring during any one year or even over a period of a few years is unavailable. Parents must rely on a school’s general reputation, which may or may not be an adequate or fair representation of how it is performing at that moment.

Finally, a school’s ranking does not indicate how the school fits the child. A child may perform very badly at a high-ranking school and feel insecure, while he or she may do very well and find his/her stride at a lower-ranking school. In fact, some students do better at lower-ranking schools and are poised to enter better colleges than would have been open to them if they had attended a very competitive school. That is why parents should visit schools and assess realistically which school is the best fit for their child and is most likely to bring out his or her talents and create an educated and ethical adult.

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