Idaho disses some of its best high schools

The U.S. News and World Report ranks the best high schools in America, collecting data on more than 22,000 public high schools. These include public charters, magnet schools, STEM and traditional public schools. These ranking are a big deal to parents, realtors, education policy makers, businesses, the media and communities. Schools that fall from the list face scrutiny from parents who want to know why their students aren’t in a top high school. Schools that make the cut celebrate their rankings and share the news widely. These rankings matter and are high-stakes for high schools.

Terry Ryan, CEO of the Idaho Charter School Network and Bluum

Yet, in Idaho some of the state’s most deserving high schools failed to make the U.S. News and World Report rankings because, per emails exchanged with the U.S. News and World Report, the Idaho State Department of Education “heavily suppressed state assessment/proficiency data.” It was based on this partial and suppressed data that the Idaho Education News, and other media outlets across the state, reported in late April that “U.S. News and World Report Recognizes 18 Idaho High Schools.”

For at least the last two years the Idaho State Department of Education has been providing data to the U.S. News and World Report that is inaccurate and unfair to some of the state’s top high schools. One of these high schools is the Coeur d’ Alene Charter Academy, which has perennially been the top SAT performer in the state. Its graduates go on to some of the nation’s premier colleges and universities, including serving at West Point, the U.S. Naval Academy and the U.S. Air Force Academy.

When we and the school’s director asked the State Department of Education in 2016 and again in April 2017 how the Coeur d’ Alene Charter Academy could not make the U.S. News and World Report list of top high schools in Idaho, State Department officials provided two possible explanations for the omission. First, “some schools were not considered because they were too small to be analyzed” and second, “U.S. News then factored in the percentages of economically disadvantaged students enrolled.”

Both statements shared by the State Department accurately reflect the methodology used by US News, but each is inaccurate as it relates to the Coeur d’ Alene Charter Academy. Idaho rightly “suppresses” data for class sizes of fewer than 10 for research purposes and fewer than 25 for reporting purposes. This is legitimate and a common practice across states; to protect the identity of individual students. However, per Idaho State Department of Education data for the 2015-16 academic year, the Coeur d’ Alene Charter Academy had 84 students in 9th grade, 78 students in 10th grade, 77 students in 11th grade and 62 students in 12th grade. Each high school grade was well over the “n” threshold of 25 for the public reporting of data.

Per the second reason provided by the Idaho State Department of Education that the Coeur d’ Alene Charter Academy doesn’t serve enough economically disadvantaged students to make the cut. This factor is not a barrier to schools making the list. For example, the top rated high school in America – Basis Scottsdale – has N/A per economically disadvantaged in its U.S. News and World Report ranking. The top high school in Virginia, and No. 6 rated in the country, is the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. It has an economically disadvantaged enrollment of just 2 percent. The top ranked school in Washington state is the Tesla STEM High School, and its economically disadvantaged rate is 4 percent.

In communicating with Kenneth Hines, data analyst for the U.S. News and World Report, we discovered that the real reason the Coeur d’ Alene Charter Academy did not make the list of top high schools was because the Idaho State Department of Education had inexplicably suppressed its state assessment/proficiency data. Mr. Hines referenced the ISAT data he received from the Idaho State Department of Education (found here: http://www.sde.idaho.gov/communications/frequently-requested-data.html), which show how Idaho heavily suppresses data for many of its schools. The 2015-16 data has the same problems as the 2014-15 data that Mr. Hines and his team used for their school rankings.

We believe it is highly likely that other Idaho public charter and district high schools have also been unfairly omitted from the U.S. News rankings over the last two years because of the suppression of achievement data by the Idaho State Department of Education. This is data that should be publicly accessible to publications like U.S. News and World Report for all Idaho high schools with grades 9-12 that serve more than 25 students. In short, either wittingly or unwittingly, the Idaho State Department of Education has been preventing some of the state’s best public high schools from receiving the national recognition for excellence they have earned and deserve.

We believe this suppression of data for top performing high schools is unintentional, and hope the state wants to get this right. But, after two years of raising this issue and sharing concerns with State Department officials, nothing has changed. The current situation is unfair to the schools that deserve to be ranked, to the students that attend these schools and have their efforts go unrecognized, and to the state’s taxpayers who deserve to know the names of all their public schools that deliver nationally recognized excellence for students.

Our plea is simple – please fix this problem!

Written by Terry Ryan and Chris Yorgason. Ryan is CEO of the Idaho Charter School Network and Bluum. Yorgason is an Idaho attorney who works closely with Idaho public charter schools.