Whitman ranked #1 in state, #93 in country

MCPS officials say rankings are skewed due to missing data

By Zoe Kaufmann

US News & World Report named Whitman the best high school in Maryland and the 93rd best in the country for the 2017-2018 school year. This ranking marks a turnaround for Whitman, which was not ranked either state- or nation-wide in the 2015-2016 report.

The report, released April 30, ranked Wootton second in the state and 125th in the country and Eastern Technical High School in Baltimore County third state-wide and 185th nationally. Other Montgomery County Schools in the top 10 in Maryland included Bethesda-Chevy Chase—ranked fifth in the state and 276th in the country—and Richard Montgomery—ranked seventh in the state and 357th nationally.

The ranking system considers the percent of students who take AP classes, students’ English and math proficiency scores based on state tests, graduation rates and how well underserved students perform at each school.

“It’s encouraging that we’re back up in the rankings,” guidance counselor Laura Williams said. “We still have a lot of work to do with ensuring that our students who face more challenges are being supported, but it’s overall very positive.”

The new rankings have drawn scrutiny, however, over claims that the system might not have included all necessary data. MCPS officials emailed parents May 1 to contend that incomplete data for some Montgomery County high schools distorted the rankings. School officials noted that Walter Johnson (38th in the state and 1,529th nationally), Poolesville (58th in the state and 2,830th nationally) and Winston Churchill (12th in the state and 538th nationally) lacked data on English proficiency, and John F. Kennedy (82nd in the state and 3,698th nationally) was missing math proficiency data. These gaps harmed the schools’ positions on the list, MCPS spokesman Derek Turner said in the email.

Whitman was consistently ranked highly until 2017, when US News began including PARCC scores in their calculations.z For the 2017 rankings, they used PARCC data from the 2014-2015 school year, the first year the test was administered in its “pilot” year. Because passing the test wasn’t yet a graduation requirement, many teachers billed the PARCC as purely practice. Many students exerted little effort on the test as a result, which was reflected in their scores: while Whitman previously had a 96% math proficiency rate and a 97% English proficiency rate, the school’s rates fell to 35% and 45% in math and English, respectively.

In response to the drop, administrators emphasized the importance of the test and transitioned to different testing procedures, including capping the number of students in a testing room at 28 and making the scheduling clearer.

“We’ve been focusing on making sure that we’re taking the PARCC seriously—it’s a graduation requirement—and students are being focused,” Assistant Principal Rainer Kulenkampff said. “I focused on making sure that there was an optimal testing environment for the students so they could be as successful as possible.”

The Maryland State Board of Education will replace the PARCC with a new set of tests, called Maryland Comprehensive Assessment Programs, in Fall 2019. This comes after years of low test scores, which some attribute to students not caring about the PARCC because it doesn’t affect their grades.

“I go into the PARCC, and I know that it’s not going to affect my grades and it’s just kind of for the school, so I do try on it but if there’s something I don’t know the answer to I don’t stress myself out about it,” sophomore Emily Sporkin said.

School rankings are often scrutinized as an indicator of prestige by prospective parents. Parents often move to certain areas in order to send their children to a strong local public school; a high ranking could attract more families and raise real estate prices.

“One can assume that it will help drive people to send their students to this school. A lot of people don’t know the nuances of education, and when they move into an area and they see that a school isn’t ranked, that’s all they see,” Kulenkampff said. “It’s not the be-all-and-end-all of a school. There’s school culture and climate and those are the kind of things that we’re working on. But it is important. You can’t ignore it.”

The ranking also confers small bragging rights on students.

“I was kind of surprised, because I have also heard about the PARCC thing and I know that there’s also a lot of other good schools in the county, but I’m happy about it,” Sporkin said. “When people ask ‘What school do you go to,’ and I’m like ‘Whitman,’ it’s kind of a cool feeling if they know Whitman’s the number one school.”