The US News and World Report has released its annual high school rankings. George Mason High School in Falls Church City ranked 12th in Virginia behind Marshall High School just down the street, that ranked at number 6. Mclean High School earned the #3 spot in Virginia, Langley at #2 and Thomas Jefferson at #1.
The methodology used in identifying these high schools is comprised of six components, the largest of which is college readiness at 30% of the score. This college readiness score is based on the proportion of 12th graders who took and passed at least one AP or IB exam. Passing is worth three times more than just taking.
However, this criteria doesn’t necessarily help George Mason’s score. In 2015, only 46 students were IB diploma candidates (27% of the senior class) and last year the number was 40. A growing number of students seek other options offered at Mason such as courses at the Arlington Career Center or in the Dual Enrollment program. The Dual Enrollment program enables students to take college classes for both college and high school credit, progressing toward the requirements of a college degree while still in high school. I wonder how Mason would rank if its diversity of study options were a criteria. Kudos to our district for offering these options. This is what we should be excited about.
The release of these annual rankings does serve to create the conversation about what they mean, what is really important for student success and if we as a community are supporting success for all students to the best of our ability? The focus of our school district in recent years has been the development of its International Baccalaureate Programme. According to the most recent WABE (Washington Area Boards of Education) guide, FCCPS is one of seven school divisions in the nation to offer the International Baccalaureate (IB) Programmes K-12 and is an IB Continuum School Division. However, since it is our incredibly dedicated teachers, high levels of parent participation, small size, and wealthy community that impact student outcomes the most, how is it that we measure the effectiveness of this program?
In addition, these rankings only count college readiness for that small number that take those exams. How are we doing in terms preparing those who don’t? How are we supporting our teachers for what they face in their classrooms every day? The ever changing needs of the student body, and state requirements all place incredible demands on our teachers. How does our school district administration evaluate our district’s ability to identify and support what our teachers need most? Teachers face demands in their classrooms not covered by courses in their education degree program. For example, one in five students in their classrooms has some form of dyslexia that impacts their access to learning. Additionally, an increasing number of students in those seats carry some mental health challenge from school anxiety to depression. Teachers must implement Individualized Education Plans for the special education students (14.3%) and deliver on 504 plans for additional students also identified as having a disability but not requiring specialized instruction under IDEA. That is not easy. How are we supporting these students and their college readiness? How is that measured? It’s pretty clear that our staff have not had access to the training they require to support these students identified as needing special education support, given that our former director of special education admitted at a public meeting, to not even having a plan to assess the need for training in the 9 years she ran the program.
Despite these demands, the majority of teacher training resources in recent years has gone to funding the required training to meet the certification requirements of the IB curriculum. The rankings show that FCCPS finances a teacher ratio of 13-1 in our high school. In a story posted by Falls Church Facts on school budget, it was revealed, that while our elementary school teachers had more than 20 students in their classrooms, our high school had more than twenty class offerings with a student enrollment of 15 or less, including 6 at 10 or less. A majority of these were for the IB classes to support our district’s participation in this program.
That is a serious financial outlay to serve only a small number of students who already are exceeding Virginia educational standards while students who struggle wait for resources. Given our special demographics here in Falls Church (English Language Learners of only 9.6% and economically disadvantaged students number only 6.8%) how is it that we rank below say Marshall High School a Fairfax County High School with demographics of 19% English Language Learners and 29% economically disadvantaged? This isn’t to point fingers, it’s just a question. How do they spend less, have a more challenging student body yet create that access for all those students?
However, that is not the most important question. What we need to think about is, not how we compare to others, but how we evaluate ourselves and the effectiveness of our resource allocations on our teachers and the educational outcomes they must create for our students every day.