Our (Smartest) Public High School Report Card

Does yours make the grade? Facts, figures, and info to help you evaluate our county’s secondary schools.

For the latest numbers on Westchester County schools, click here.

How would education professionals, the same people entrusted, indeed, in charge of directing Westchester children’s education, evaluate your public high school? This year, we found out.

For the past five years, we’ve conducted an annual survey of Westchester public high schools, trying to determine just how good a job our local institutions were doing. Last year, based on a formula that used such factors as SAT scores, class size, percentage of graduates going on to college, and Advance Placement class participation, we ranked the 44 public high schools from No. 1 (Edgemont) to No. 44 (Mount Vernon). (For the complete results, see the March 2005 Westchester Magazine.)

The fallout was not quite what we expected. While we anticipated that some principals and administrators who represented high schools that placed low in our ranking might complain, we were taken aback that officials from some of the top-ranked school districts were mightily ticked off at us, too. In fact, much to our surprise, they seemed the most angered.

We held two meetings with almost a dozen Westchester school superintendents, who spoke for 39 county school districts. The superintendents contended, that while our measures were valid, that comparing high schools as different as affluent, homogeneous suburban Bronxville, Briarcliff, and Chappaqua, and urban, racially diverse New Rochelle, White Plains, and Mount Vernon, was “completely inappropriate.”

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We weren’t cowered; we saw this as a wonderful opportunity. Okay, we said, show us a better way to evaluate our high schools; tell us just what standards you would use to determine if a particular school is doing a great job or poor job of educating its students.

We sent them off with a homework assignment and told them to work on it over the summer. They did, and returned with a list of 17(!) suggested factors. We accepted most, fiddled with a few, and added a few additional criterion of our own. The data we used (see “How Our Schools Stack Up” on pages 60 and 61) is drawn from a trio of sources: the school districts themselves; documents published by the New York State Department of Education; and SchoolMatters, a web-based clearinghouse for public education information operated by Standard & Poors, the independent credit-rating and investment-rating company. All of the data is the latest publicly available (in a few cases the data refers to the 2003-2004 school year).

The bottom line? Read on. There’s lots to learn.

Median Household Income

No factor, it turns out, has A greater influence upon the quality of our childrens’ education than the wealth of their community. If money is said to be mother’s milk of politics, a similiar thing could be said of high household income and good SAT scores. More-affluent kids have been proven to start school with larger vocabularies and exposure to more sophisticated concepts than their less-affluent peers.

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“Middle-class kids come to school with so many advantages,” says Saul M. Yanofsky, assistant dean for academic affairs at Westchester Community College and former superintendent of White Plains Schools. “If their high schools don’t do anything particularly bad, the kids will leave in fine shape.”

While Westchester is among the wealthiest counties in the state—the county’s median household income, $118,495, is more than $45,000 higher than the state’s—the gulf created by the income disparity between the richest and poorest school districts is vast. The median household income (MHI) in our wealthiest district, Scarsdale ($316,453), is almost five-times more than in Mount Vernon, our least-affluent district ($68,487).

Percentage of Adults with College Degrees in the Community

Want to make sure your youngster succeeds at school? Then get a college degree yourself (especially if you’re the mom in the household). “All research shows that there are two factors that correlate most highly with test scores,” says Scarsdale School Superintendent Michael McGill. “No. 1 is the median income of the family. No. 2 is the educational level of the student’s mother.”

Why are mothers seemingly more important than fathers? “Mothers traditionally have been cast in the role of the nurturer, the teacher,” says La Ruth Gray, deputy director of The Metropolitan Center for Urban Education at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Education and former superintendent for the Abbott Union Free School in Irvington. “They’ve been socialized to do so. And with mothers, the more education they have, the more they have to give in terms of learning.”

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It is no coincidence that Scarsdale has the greatest percentage of college graduates residing within its borders: nearly 58 percent. Our table shows that as median household income increases, so does, in almost lockstep fashion, the percentage of adults with a college degree in the community. The city with the lowest percent of college-educated parents is Port Chester, our fourth poorest town (17 percent), followed closely by Peekskill, our third poorest town (17.4).

Gross Expenditures Per Pupil/Instructional Costs Per Pupil

You don’t need an MBA to know that more school money means more and better educational resources, higher teachers’ salaries (and, in theory, better teachers), more bucks for extracurricular activities; in short, more of everything. But there are plenty of factors that determine how much cash is actually spent in the classroom. Big school districts enjoy certain economies of scale over small districts, especially regarding administrative costs. A compact district where most students walk to school might spend less of its budget on transportation; construction of a new school wing might cause more of the school budget to be eaten by debt service.

For these reasons, we list two per-pupil expenditure figures. The first is the broadest possible measure of spending—think of it as the “everything-and-the-kitchen-sink” number. The second reflects the amount of money actually spent on instruction and support, not only teachers’ salaries and books, but also teachers’ aides, guidance counselors, after-school clubs, etc.

And? The three top-spending districts (on a gross basis)—Briarcliff  ($24,738), North Salem ($24,486), and Bronxville ($24,068)—each spend approximately $10,000 more per pupil than Yonkers ($14,170), Port Chester ($14,461), and Mount Vernon ($14,955). The disparity between instructional expenditures is even more profound. Although they serve roughly the same size student populations, Rye ($12,531) spends about 50 percent more  on per-pupil instruction than Port Chester ($8,299). “I can’t compete on a per-capita spending level,” says Charles Coletti, school superintendent of Port Chester. “Financial comparisons don’t work for my district. They never have, and they never will.”

Average Class Size

Class size matters. In smaller classes students receive more individual attention and personal instruction from their teachers. “Obviously, the teacher can pay more attention to my child in a class of 23 than he can in a class of 35,” says Gray.

Class size can vary from subject to subject and from grade to grade. Thus, for our table, we used the average size of each school district’s 10th grade English class, which all students are required to take. Still, the numbers, cautions John Chambers, superintendent of Byram Hills (our 4th wealthiest district), “don’t tell you if there are teacher’s aides in the room, or how long the class is, or what the skill level and preparation level of the teacher is.” Note, however, that all the schools in our least-affluent districts show average class sizes above the county median of 22, whereas among schools in the top tier, only four, Briarcliff, Yorktown, Mamaroneck, and Fox Lane, had classes slightly higher (23) than the median, while another, John Jay, is well above the median with 26 students in its 10th grade English class. The schools with the smallest class size (17) are Croton, Hastings, and Westlake.

 

Percentage of Students with Limited English Proficiency & Percentage of Students Receiving Free or Reduced-Priced Lunches

 

These two statistics limn a school district’s socio-economic levels. The first, the percentage of students with Limited English Proficiency (LEP), gives some indication of how many sudents in the district are not native English speakers. School districts such as Port Chester (LEP 20 percent), Sleepy Hollow (18.9), and New Rochelle (13.1) face the daunting task of educating many kids who require basic English language instruction. On the other hand, Chappaqua, Armonk, Briarcliff, and Pelham have fewer than 1 percent of students needing extra language help.

“English proficiency is the sine qua non for building academic quality,” says Port Chester’s Coletti. “Schools can’t approach academic quality until they have the building block of English proficiency in place.”

Similarly, the percentage of students who are receiving free or reduced-priced lunches provides an approximation of the number of families in a school district scraping by economically. Under current federal guidelines, Westchester children living in a four-person household which earns less than $25,155 per year qualify for free school breakfasts and lunches; similar households earning less than $35,798 annually pay only 25 cents for school meals.

“In families which have to struggle to make a living, there are a lot fewer opportunities for incidental-but-vital learning activities outside the classroom,” says Gray. “Not because they’re bad people, not because they don’t care about their kids, but because the resources are not there.”

Not surprisingly, the percentage of students receiving free or reduced-fee lunches in Westchester’s richest districts is miniscule—and there were none at all in Scarsdale (MHI: $316,453), Bronxville ($277,990), Blind Brook ($205,363), Edgemont ($203,781), Pleasantville ($163,315), Irvington ($152,009), and Croton-Harmon ($151,253). By contrast, the overwhelming majority of students—70.3 percent—qualify for meal assistance in  Yonkers (MHI: $74,902),  along with 67.6 percent in Mount Vernon ($68,487), 63.5 percent in Port Chester (MHI: $80,137), and 61.2 percent in Peekskill (MHI: $77,812).

Average SAT Scores

As an indicator of a high school’s general academic performance, the SAT is widely perceived as an imperfect tool. “The SATs are not an indicator of success of a high school,” says Jon Snyder, dean of the Graduate School

at the Bank Street College of Education. “They’re not

related to the curricula of a high school.” However, they remain important, at least for college-bound students. “They’re as good a predictor as any when it comes to success in college,” Snyder says. But, he notes, “there’s a huge correlation between high test scores and high family income.”

The SATs are an inescapable fact of life for anyone who hopes to advance their education after high school. They provide the test score numbers which many (maybe too many) Westchester students (and their parents) spend a large portion of their junior and senior years of high school obsessing over and fretting about. “It’s the language of high school that everyone speaks,” says Rye City School District Superintendent Edward Shine. It seems to be spoken better in wealthier districts. The schools whose students received the highest average SAT scores were Bronxville (1295), followed by Scarsdale (1275), Chappaqua (1269), and Blind Brook (1250).

Reading and Math Proficiency Rate

The Reading and Math Proficiency Rate (RaMP) represents an attempt by Standard & Poor’s to quantify how well a particular high school or district is doing teaching basic core curriculum to its students. For New York high school students, the RaMP rate is based upon their performance on their Regents Examinations in English and Math. (Once considered an elective, New York is now moving toward a system where all students will have to pass Regents exams in five subjects to graduate.)

The RaMP rate number is a simple average of each school’s English and Math assessed proficiency results. A higher score means more students are meeting or exceeding standards. (Most districts set a score of 55 as passing.)

“The RaMP rate indicates how well a school is doing in getting everybody to the minimum standard as set by New York State,” says Paul Gazzerro, director of analy-tics for Standard and Poor’s School Evaluation Services in New York. The schools with the highest RaMP rates are Briarcliff (99.6 percent), Bronxville (97.8), Scarsdale (97.4), Hastings (97.2), and Dobbs Ferry (97). (The RaMP rate is based upon information for the 2003-2004 school year, the last for which data is publicly available.)

Graduation Rate and Percentage of Students Going on to Higher Education

Nowadays, a high school diploma is the starting point, merely first of many educational accreditations an individual can be expected to acquire over the course of their life (and if you want a decent good job in today’s highly competitive, post-industrial economy, a bachelor’s degree is the minimum required). A high school’s graduation rate “is an indication of academic sustainability, and a measure of the district’s striving to convince and cajole kids to hang in there to get their high school diplomas,” says Shine, Rye City’s superintendent. Graduating in a timely fashion is also key; our numbers refer to the percentage of students who attain their diploma in four years.

That’s only half the story, surely. “You want to look at where those kids are going,” says Marla Ucelli, the director of district redesign for the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University in Providence, RI. “Ask, what kind of schools are your college-bound kids going to: community colleges, four-year colleges, public or private colleges?”

Teacher Education Levels

Over the last decade, the professional bar for public school teachers has been raised significantly. Teachers today must earn a Master’s degree in education in order to get permanently certified to teach in a public school.

“Teaching has become a more complex profession, demanding much more of teachers,” Chambers says. “They must differentiate the needs of different students and classes. They must analyze test data on a class- and individual-basis. As we ask that these more sophisticated tasks be performed by teachers, we have to provide them with more sophisticated preparation, both in terms of their subject knowledge, and in their pedagogy, or teaching skills.”

We have included in our table the percentage of teachers in each school district who possess an MA degree and have completed a minimum of 30 credits of advanced graduate work (or the equivalent), or have received a doctorate.

Says Yanofsky of Westchester Community College: “This figure can be interpreted as a proxy for the professionalization of the staff, that getting more credits beyond your Master’s is an indication of the staff’s desire to improve itself over time and keep abreast of education trends and developments.”

Not everyone agrees. Because public school teachers receive salary raises for all graduate education courses they complete regardless of whether it has anything to do with their actual duties in the classroom (for example, courses in school administration), this MA+30 could merely be indicative of resumé polishing. “It could show you’ve got a lot of teachers who are interested in moving up in the salary schedule, but may or may not be inter-ested in improving pedagogically,” says Thomas Sobol, a former state commissioner of education and former superintendent of Scarsdale schools. “The teachers’ union will kill me for saying that.”

So, What Does It All Mean?

At this point, we’ve thrown enough numbers at you to gag anyone other than a statistician. Despite that, we’ll be the first to admit that when it comes to a field as complex as public education (and after staring at so many numbers and discussing them with authorities for the better part of a month, nobody knows better how truly complex a subject it is), statistics simply cannot tell the entire story.

No number, for example, can measure an individual teacher’s personal dedication to helping their students succeed, or the impact of a school administration that avidly supports faculty efforts to devise new ways to reach and inspire students, or the way the language of Shakespeare can ignite an adolescent’s imagination, or the value of rubbing shoulders in class with students from different cultures. “There is no single quantitative measure that is satisfactory to compare districts,” agrees Yanofsky.

So, how do you judge high school performance? It depends. If you evaluate the schools according to one popular criteria—total SAT scores and the percentage of students later attending four-year colleges—you end up with a list dominated by the “usual suspects”: Bronxville (SAT 1295; 97 percent to four-year schools), Scarsdale (1275; 94 percent), Horace Greeley (1269; 96 percent), Blind Brook (1250; 99 percent), and Edgemont (1227; 96 percent).

Or, you could argue that making sure that the greatest possible number of high school grads meet or exceed state proficiency requirements is an equally valid indicator of quality. In that case, Briarcliff (RaMP 99.6), Bronxville (97.8), Hastings (97.6), Scarsdale (97.4), Irvington (97.2) and Dobbs Ferry (97), come out on top. As in cards, there are plenty of ways to shuffle the deck. It’s your call.

But the true educational strength of some high schools might be buried underneath what appear at first glance to be less-than-stellar performances, for academic performance must always be evaluated in socioeconomic context.

Take Port Chester High School. It is in the fourth poorest school district in the county, has the highest percentage of limited-English speakers and a RaMP rate of only 61.7. Its average combined SAT scores are the eighth lowest in the county. Yet every superintendent we queried thought the local administrators were doing an outstanding job given the population they serve and the resources at their disposal.

“One-fifth of my students don’t speak the language,” says Port Chester’s Coletti. “They come to me, and in only three or four years, we have to get them to learn English and perform at something like the Regent’s level. For that particular subgroup, that becomes my definition of quality education.”

In fact, Port Chester has been cited by Standard & Poor’s as one of the state’s “outperforming school districts” because of its results compared to other less-affluent districts. The other local school districts cited by the rating agency for outperforming their peers are Briarcliff Manor, Bryam Hills, Dobbs Ferry, Edgemont, Pelham, Rye, Rye Neck, and Scarsdale.

So our numbers don’t tell the whole story, but they do point to something going on in our schools. And not always for the better. For example, though North Salem is among the county’s most affluent districts—it’s per-pupil expenditures are among the very top in Westchester—the school’s proficiency score (RaMP 88) and average combined SAT score (1102) lag behind its peers. Likewise, Elmsford’s Alexander Hamilton High School posts the lowest proficiency score (62.5) and second-lowest combined SAT score (1000) of any school in the top three-quartiles of income, though the district’s household wealth is comfortably above the median. In these instances, our numbers provide no answers, only raise questions.

The most disconcerting insight gained from our 2006 high school report is not the differences between the county’s 44 high schools, but the yawning gap reflected in resources available and academic performance posted by institutions representing the top and bottom of society’s pile. By most criterion, the clear advantage goes to those schools serving the top of the financial heap. Certain measures of performance, especially SAT scores and to a lesser degree RaMP rates, rise and fall in direct proportion to a community’s household wealth.

“If you look at the data through the lenses of what resources are available, you’re going to find the same thing in Westchester that is true in the U.S.,” says Byram Hills’ John Chambers. “There are two Americas: one affluent that can provide high-quality education to its children, and the other that is not affluent and cannot provide the same quality of education to its young people. I think that’s a national crime. We ought to be about the business of setting that right.”

 

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