Dissatisfied that the state's ratings of public schools left parents with too few tools to determine what kind of education their children would receive, Children at Risk set out to create its own ranking system.
"We love rankings, especially as Americans," says Bob Sanborn, the president and CEO of the Houston-based nonprofit advocacy and research organization, "and as Texans we love rankings, especially in terms of sports. So we thought, why not do that in terms of public education?"
Children at Risk developed a ranking method based on 14 criteria, including completion of Advanced Placement courses, SAT and ACT scores, attendance and graduation rates, which are adjusted for a school’s percentage of economically disadvantaged students. (See the related PDF that describes the methodology in full.)
After six years, Children at Risk's database includes more than 5,800 public school campuses. The Texas Tribune has updated the rankings with 2011 figures — explore them for yourself here. The organization also releases a list of the top 10 most improved campuses over the past three years; find that below.
The top schools — outside of those in affluent or suburban districts like Highland Park in Dallas or Memorial in Houston — are most likely to be magnets or theme-based schools and smaller charters. Many of them have a high percentage of economically disadvantaged students. "Obviously parents and students there have a choice, so they enter the school with a little bit more enthusiasm. Teachers are also choosing these schools," Sanborn says.
That "missionary zeal" on the part of the teachers, he says, makes a big difference, especially when educating impoverished kids. "If we want to serve those students who grow up in poverty ... the big comprehensive urban high school by every measure is not working," he says.
Something else the top ranked schools have in common: They’re spending more per student. As state budget cuts take effect, Sanborn says, programs will surely suffer: “It’s very clear … the kids that are going to be most affected are going to be high-poverty, economically disadvantaged kids.”
The benchmarks used by Children at Risk were chosen to evaluate how well schools are preparing students for college and the workforce. They avoid heavy reliance on TAKS scores, something the Texas Education Agency bases its ratings on. Researcher Caroline Holcombe says that when there's a discrepancy between the Children at Risk ranking and the state, it's often because that school is too focused on TAKS passage rates — as opposed to how many students are taking AP tests or achieving "commended" scores on the statewide standardized tests. Schools that focus too much on TAKS passage rates may not be doing the best job preparing their students for college, Sanborn says.
“There are too many schools that get ranked highly by the state, and that, parents should beware of,” he says.
Most Improved Schools
1. Seymour High (Seymour ISD)
2. Memphis High (Memphis ISD)
3. Eastwood Academy (Houston ISD)
4. Anna High (Anna ISD)
5. Nueces Canyon High (Nueces Canyon CISD)
6. Hale Center High (Hale Center ISD)
7. Malakoff High (Malakoff ISD)
8. Alvin High (Alvin ISD)
9. Roscoe Collegiate High (Roscoe ISD)
10. Bland High (Bland ISD)