Our Annual Public High School Report Card

APs, SATs, PPEs, RaMPs, and other stats you need to know about the quality of your local high school.

In Search of Excellence

 

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How does your town’s public high school measure up? We looked at the

data and interviewed the experts to determine which of our schools

“exceed expectations” and which “need improvement.”

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For your school’s report card, read on.

 

 

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I live in a Westchester town famed for its “good” schools. My property value and taxes reflect that fact. But are the schools in my district really good? Are they as good as the schools in my neighboring towns, perhaps even better?

I’m certain I’m not the only parent who wants to know about the quality of the local school system. Which is why every year Westchester Magazine takes a close-up look at our schools—specifically our public high schools. There are 44 public high schools in our county. Some are superb, others far from it. And while comparisons are almost always flawed—How does one fairly compare a small homogeneous high school like that in Bronxville with a big, urban, racially diverse school like New Rochelle High?—there are some qualitative measurements that can shed light on how well a school is performing.

Here, we do our best to evaluate our public high schools. We talked to many experts—educators, researchers, and teachers—and used various data to help determine how our public high schools are doing. We obtained our data primarily from the schools themselves as well as the public schools’ 2005-2006 Contract Analysis published by Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES and SchoolMatters, a Web-based clearinghouse for public-education information operated by Standard & Poor’s, the independent credit- and investment-rating company. All of the data (see our chart, “By the Numbers,” on page 82) is the latest publicly available. So, how does your public high school fare? Read on. 

 

            

The Role of Money

            

There’s no getting around it. Nothing else, it seems, has more impact on the quality of our children’s education than money. You can, in fact, take this little bit of wisdom to the bank: the more money a community has, the better its educational system. To no one’s surprise, a new University of Michigan study found that “children performed better on academic achievement tests and had fewer behavior problems when wealth was factored in.”

There are myriad reasons why. For starters, the wealthier the community, the more advantages its kids have—even before they’ve reached the schoolhouse doors. “There’s widespread agreement that middle- and upper-middle-class kids enter school better prepared to do school work than kids from a working-class or impoverished background,” reports Saul M. Yanofsky, assistant dean of academic affairs at Westchester Community College and former White Plains Schools Superintendent. These kinds of advantages may be much more profound in very affluent communities like Scarsdale, the county’s wealthiest, where nearly 80 percent of the households earn at least $100,000 per year. In Mount Vernon, by comparison, our least affluent district, more than 80 percent (83 to be exact) of the households earn less than that.

By the time kids from affluent towns reach their high school years, they will have benefited from everything from Baby Einstein DVDs to computer-science summer camp and trips to the Metropolitan Opera, not to mention private tutors and/or private test-prep courses. “Their parents talk to them at home and take them on trips and introduce new concepts,” says Yanofsky. “In districts where kids don’t have these advantages, schools have to scramble to make up the difference.”

“It’s not that poorer kids aren’t capable of learning—they definitely are,” says Paul Gazzerro, director of Analytical Criteria and Research for Standard & Poor’s. “It’s just that statistically, you see a relationship between test scores and disadvantage.” It all adds up to a single, undeniable truth: “In general, student achievement correlates with the socioeconomic status of a school district,” Yanofsky says. That’s why the schools on our chart appear in order of wealthiest to poorest districts served. If you’re going to make a meaningful comparison between school districts, your first (but hardly sole) concern would be to compare schools that serve similar communities. (Look closely and you’ll see a rather significant correlation between the community’s wealth and its students’ SAT scores.)

 

 

 

The Importance of Your Own Education

 

If you want your child to do well in school, get a college degree, especially if you’re the one who wears the skirts in the family. Why? According to experts, studies show that the two factors most closely linked to test scores are: one, family income and, two, the educational level of the student’s mother. Why are moms seemingly more important than dads? Experts hypothesize that mothers, in general, spend more time with their children—even though more women work today than ever before (approximately 75 percent of women between the ages of 25 to 54 work outside the home nowadays, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics), moms still do the lion’s share of the child rearing. How much more? According to research conducted by the Census Bureau and released by the Labor Department in 2004, in households with the youngest child under six years of age, women spent more than twice as many hours per day on childcare than men. Professor Suzanne M. Bianchi, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, recently told the New York Times that today’s working mothers spend an average of 12 hours a week on childcare, an hour more than stay-at-home mothers did in 1975. Children with educated mothers, studies say, are likely to be influenced by that investment of time.

Since education and wealth go hand in hand, it should come as no surprise that the two wealthiest communities—Scarsdale, our wealthiest, and Chappaqua, our second wealthiest—have the highest percentage of residents with a college degree (or better) in their communities: 57.7 and 55.6 respectively. Our chart shows rather cogently that as the wealth of the community goes up, so does the number of adults with a BA or better in the community. The community with the fewest college-educated parents is Port Chester (17 percent), our fourth least-affluent town, followed by Peekskill (17.4 percent) and Mount Vernon (18.7 percent).

 

 

The Critical (and underappreciated) Role of Teachers

 

Talk to any educator about the smartest ways to determine the quality of a school, and invariably the conversation will shift to the men and women who spend their days in the classroom, reading, explaining, analyzing, drawing, composing, graphing, and patiently, patiently, ever so patiently, going over the Pythagorean theorem until “I don’t get it” magically morphs into “got it.” It might be a cliché but teachers—their ability to inspire, challenge, and communicate—play a critical role in our children’s academic success, even though, too often society tends to give them little credit for their work. 

“Teachers generally are underpaid and undervalued,” says Sara Wilford, program director for Art of Teaching Graduate Program, Sarah Lawrence College. “It’s hard work that’s not always recognized as such. There’s that saying, ‘If you can’t do, teach,’ which is absolutely not true.”

Because teachers make such a difference, the faculty’s qualification at any given school matters when evaluating the quality of a school. Which is why, for our chart, we asked districts to tell us what percentage of their teachers have “M.A. + 30 or doctorate” (at least 30 graduate-level credits in addition to a master’s degree). “The more education you get, and the more professional education you get, the better you do,” says Jon Snyder, dean of the Graduate School at Bank Street College of Education. “You’d expect a doctor to keep learning in his profession and not just stop at med school, right?”

Jane Ashdown, PhD, vice chairperson of New York University’s Department of Teaching and Learning, maintains that good teaching skills not only are important for a good education, but also good for a school’s bottom line. “There is a debate in the research that class-size reduction is an expensive form of educational improvement,” she says. “Improving teaching skill is more cost-effective.”

The schools with the highest percentage of teachers with M.A. + 30 are Blind Brook (97), Bronxville (95), and Westlake/Thornwood (94) .

Still, not everyone agrees that a teacher’s advanced degrees translate into a better learning experience for students. “I’m not sure that a PhD for teaching in a high school is essential,” says Shelley B. Wepner, PhD, dean and professor of Manhattanville School of Education. Says Scarsdale Schools Superintendent Michael McGill, “In general, there’s a correlation between a teacher’s education and how well he does his job, but it’s not a direct correlation.” A teacher might have more degrees than a thermometer and still be less effective than a less impressively credentialed colleague with more talent, concern, and drive. Plus, because public school teachers receive salary increases for extra course work—independent of whether the work actually has anything to do with their classroom responsibilities (e.g., a course in administration), some teachers’ greater education drive may just be indicative of resumé building—a way to simply earn more money. “There’s pretty much a correlation to the caliber of the teachers and the way they are supported,” Snyder says. “Money is one form of teacher support.”

When evaluating a school, also consider how long its teachers stay put. A high teacher-retention rate “indicates stability,” says Farhad Asghar, director of the Liberty Leads Program at Bank Street College of Education, a drop-out prevention and college-access program for underserved children. “Teachers don’t need to relearn the curriculum. It shows that the school is solid.” Asghar notes that this truism applies to the administration, too. “If the principal’s been changed three times in three years, that impacts classroom instruction. The lack of stability creates a dysfunctional environment in which to learn.”

What does it mean when your school has a high turnover rate among the staff? Well, as you’ve probably guessed, the answer is, “Nothing good,” according to Thomas Hatch, an associate professor at Teachers College, Columbia University and co-director of the National Center for Restructuring Education Schools and Teaching (an organization that studies and provides technical assistance to schools undergoing reform). “While some turnover in the staff can be a good thing as it brings in new ideas and new expertise, if teachers constantly turn over, it could be an indicator that people aren’t happy there or that they get higher salaries elsewhere,” Hatch says.

 

 

Average Class Size

 

Yes, size matters—and, when it comes to educating our kids, the smaller the number of kids in a classroom, the better. With fewer kids in the classroom, teachers can provide more individual attention and greater personal instruction. “Research underscores that class size does matter,” says Wepner. “Smaller classes give the teachers the ability to differentiate instruction, to know the students better, and to help them all get where they need to go.”

Sara Wilford, program director for the Art of Teaching Graduate Program, Sarah Lawrence College, agrees. “The smaller the classes, the more students have an opportunity to respond to the teacher and more of an opportunity to respond to each other,” she says. “One of the best ways to learn is through interaction around the material.”

Yet no one knows exactly how small a class ought to be for optimal learning conditions. “Class size is more an expression of local resources than anything else,” says Gazzerro of Standard and Poor’s. It’s the money thing again. While having a wealthy school district doesn’t guarantee a small class (Scarsdale has an average of 25), having a poor district certainly seems to guarantee a large one. Just turn to our chart: the schools in our least well-to-do districts have the greatest number of students in their classrooms: Yonkers-Lincoln and Yonkers-Roosevelt with 30 kids each, Yonkers High School with 29, Yonkers-Saunders 28, and Mount Vernon 25—all above, some significantly above, the average number for the county: 23. The schools with the smallest class size (15) are Valhalla and Alexander Hamilton in Elmsford, followed by Walter Panas in Cortlandt Manor (17) and Fox Lane in Bedford (18).

 

 

Covering the Basics: Reading and Math Proficiency Rate

 

If you’re a parent debating the relative merits of Princeton and Yale for your child, you might wonder what possible relevance the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act, legislation aimed at improving the performance of “at risk” students, has for you or your school. Its impact is huge. How your school does on one legally mandated assessment determines how it funds its programs, how it programs its curriculum, and what goes on in the classroom.

Here’s how the No Child Left Behind Act works: the Bush administration has said that all kids must be at 100 percent reading and math by the year 2014. States have given schools targets identifying what proficiency percentage they have to hit each year in order to achieve this goal. To determine if a school is hitting its target, New York State relies on the “Reading and Math Proficiency Rate” (RaMP), a measure devised by Standard & Poor’s that is based upon students’ performance on their Regents exams in math and reading.

“We know it’s not the only outcome that counts,” says Gazzerro. “In Westchester, every high school is looking to deliver something more comprehensive than basic skills. In some districts, RaMP is just the floor and the ceiling is much higher. But RaMP is useful for determining how well you serve all kids. If this is the floor, then one-hundred percent of the kids should at least be at the floor level.”

The RaMP-rate number is simply the average of each district’s English and math assessed proficiency results. A high number means more students are meeting or exceeding standards. The schools this year with the highest RaMP rates are Byram Hills/Armonk and Blind Brook (94.8 percent each), Briarcliff (94.7), and Rye Neck/Mamaroneck (94.4). Predictably, the high-scoring districts are also among the wealthiest.

Of course, getting a high number is easier when your students all speak English and are comfortably middle class. The LEP (Limited English Proficiency) student populations tend to be clustered in just a few schools. While the vast majority of our schools (24) have two percent or less of their students with LEP, ten schools in Westchester have student populations with Limited English Proficiency in excess of 5 percent (LEP): Yonkers Lincoln (6), Elmsford (6), Fox Lane/Bedford (7) New Rochelle (7), Peekskill (7), Ossining (10) White Plains (12), Sleepy Hollow and Yonkers Roosevelt (16), and Port Chester (22).

The good news, according to Standard & Poor’s 2005 report (the most recent available), some Westchester schools surpass all expectations. Port Chester, which in 2004 posted 61.7 percent, scored 82.7 in 2005. In fact, it scored higher than schools like New Rochelle (75.8) and Elmsford (75.6) and not far behind the far wealthier (47.4 percent of households with at least $100,000 in income), more linguistically homogenous (7 LEP)
district of Bedford (RaMP 85). (See sidebar “The Port Chester Miracle,” page 85). Other schools that deserve kudos are Briarcliff Manor, Byram Hills, Dobbs Ferry, Edgemont, Pelham, Rye Neck, and Scarsdale, which made it onto Standard & Poor’s “out performers” report for the 2004 academic year (a new report will be published some time this spring). These are all schools that do better than expected, based on the populations they serve. “Statistically, you see a relationship between poor test scores and economic disadvantage,” Gazzerro explains. “By controlling for that, we look for exceptions and we find them throughout the socioeconomic continuum.” 

 

 

The SATs: Multiple Choice Answers

 

Admit it. When you looked at the chart, the first statistic you read was “average SAT total.” We understand. For one thing, other statistics, like graduation rates for example, don’t tell you whether seniors are bound for the Ivy League or the bush league. When it comes to getting a handle on whether a school is “competitive” (the preferred term of art), nothing is as reader-friendly and informative as an SAT score. But before we celebrate the extreme highs (Scarsdale, 1890) and bemoan the lows (Yonkers Roosevelt, 1193), it pays to ask what SAT scores actually mean and what they say (or fail to say) about the quality of education a particular school has to offer.

First, let’s remember what SATs actually measure. “I don’t think the SATs measure intelligence,” says Snyder of Bank Street. “If intelligence is something innate and achievement is learned knowledge in a specific area, I’d say the SATs measure achievement, and mastery of a certain kind of knowledge that is valued by society.” They’re handy in the college-admissions process. “It’s not one-hundred percent, but they’re as good a predictor as any when it comes to success in college,” Snyder says. Jay Shotel, chairman of the Department of Teacher Preparation and Special Education at George Washington University, couldn’t agree more. “It may not be a one-to-one correspondence, but it is a predictive measure of how well students do. So, until we come up with a better measure—and I’m not sure we ever will—the SATs are still something to look at.”

They are, in fact, a necessity for any student who hopes to go on with his or her education after high school. But they may not be an indicator of a high school’s quality. “The SATs are not related to the curricula of a high school,” Snyder notes. “And there’s a huge correlation between high test scores and the income of the parents.”

Oops—that money thing again. Although there are exceptions to the rule (Irvington, for example, is the 15th wealthiest district but its average SAT
total of 1870, is the county’s fourth highest), a district’s SAT scores tend to move in lockstep with income. The schools whose students did best on the SATs were Scarsdale (1890), Horace Greeley (1880), and Edgemont (1871).

 

 

What Does it All Mean?

 

If no single statistic tells how well a school is doing in educating its students, how do you begin to figure out whether your school is doing its job well? We could, of course, throw more stats your way. We could note the percentage of kids who graduate. In that case, Scarsdale, Bronxville, Edgemont, Pleasantville, Rye, Rye Neck/Mamaroneck, and Valhalla come out on top (100 percent graduation rates for all). Or we could mention the percentage of students who go on to four-year colleges. In that case, Blind Brook (99), Briarcliff (97), Bronxville, Edgemont, and Scarsdale (96 for all) would finish first.

But none of these measures on their own is adequate for assessing districts. Thus, Thomas Hatch, associate professor at Teachers College, suggests looking at a school’s statistics as a whole—and looking for discrepancies. “Take a look at the demographics and the finances—how much is spent per child,” he suggests. “Then ask if the school is doing better or worse than you’d expect based on those numbers. Are there numbers that just don’t make sense?” As a Hastings resident with Westchester high schools firmly in his sights (he has three young children of his own), these questions are very meaningful to Hatch.

Hatch also advises parents to look beyond the numbers. “No one would buy a house without walking through it and the same holds true for schools. You need to visit and ask, What kind of place is this? Where do the students go to college? Is the school providing AP courses, physics, and arts? Why are they studying what they’re studying? What are the students being asked to do? Are they answering questions with multiple choice or paragraphs?”

And finally, you need to examine the nature of your question. A school is only “excellent” if it’s an excellent fit for your child. “There are tradeoffs at all schools,” Hatch says. “Small, community atmosphere is nice, but a smaller school might not have as many courses or teams or special programs as a larger school. Ultimately, your values have to come into play.”

“As Mark Twain said, there are lies, damned lies, and statistics,” says Farhad Asghar. “I’m not saying throw out the statistics, but be holistic about it. Numbers are never enough.”

 

 

The Rise and the Fall of Advanced Placement

 

Just when you finally understood the importance of AP (Advanced Placement or college-level courses), Scarsdale High School is thinking of dropping them. (The venerated Ethical Culture Fieldston School in Riverdale already has.) Why? It is certainly not because the school believes that AP classes aren’t valuable. Heck, experts—including those at Scarsdale High—agree that offering academically rigorous courses to high school students is a good thing: it challenges students and gives them a taste of what’s in store for them in their academic careers. (FYI: Countywide, Elmsford offers the smallest number of AP courses—four—but most schools offer at least 12. New Rochelle offers an astonishing 24 AP courses.) “The AP is a better reflection of what students actually learn than other measures,” says Pelham Superintendent Charles Wilson, Phd. “It’s a national standardized program so you know exactly what you’re getting.” And though there’s a wide scope in how the material is taught, Wilson says, “at the end of the day, all the kids in AP calculus will have covered the same course material and mastered the same skills.” The IB (International Baccalaureate) is a similar program consisting of college-level courses taught to an international standard with exams for each subject. Both Dobbs Ferry and Yonkers High School are IB schools.

If AP classes are so wonderful, though, why is Scarsdale considering doing away with them? The simple answer: Scarsdale wants to improve upon them. “The theory here is that in content-heavy AP courses like science and history teachers have to cover so much material for the APs that they’re giving short shrift to more in-depth discussions and research,” Superintendent Michael McGill explains. There’s less opportunity to connect classroom learning to real-world learning. It’s not that the AP program is a bad program—the question is whether it’s the best that can be done.”

John Starr, PhD, a Yale University lecturer and executive director of the Tri-State Consortium, an organization that evaluates school districts in collaboration with an accrediting agency, concurs. “We’ve been asking competitive colleges, ‘What do you want high school seniors to be capable of doing?’ Colleges want students who are capable of doing research but, given a full curriculum of AP courses, students have little opportunity to do research so they’re arriving at college without this important skill.”

“I think it’s to Scarsdale’s credit that they think they can do better,” says Saul Yanofsky of Westchester Community College. “Even though they have high-achieving kids, parental support, and resources, they’re not complacent. They have more but they do more.”

Of course, for most schools, having a successful AP program is a testament to the quality of the education on offer and the potential of its student body. “When you’re thinking about college readiness, you certainly can compare SAT scores between schools, but even more relevant is AP tests,” says Paul Gazzerro of Standard & Poor’s. “What’s the participation rate? What percentage of seniors is receiving an AP curriculum? What percentage of those students score three [a passing grade] or above on the test?”

The schools with the highest percentage of seniors taking APs are Horace Greeley/Chappaqua (79), Blind Brook (78), and Rye City (77). The schools with the best outcome on the AP tests are Scarsdale and Edgemont. In Scarsdale, where 62 percent of seniors take AP courses, the avera

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