High School Is About More Than Test Scores & Rankings

As you may know, the “U.S. News & World Report” just released its annual list of the “best” high schools in the country. Communities often feel a sense of pride when their local school makes the list, and parents may believe that their child’s attendance at one of the ranked schools will help with college admissions and/or future jobs and careers. At Challenge Success, we know that these rankings do not tell the full story of a high school’s value. They use test scores and course attendance to quantify the value of a school, but they fail to take into account more important measures. We thought hearing from high school counselor and CS board member Lisa Spengler on how she helps her students choose a high school would help provide some perspective on an alternative way to think about high school choice. 

Each April, I wrap up my high school counseling work with the eighth grade class at Katherine Delmar Burke School, a kindergarten through eighth grade school for girls in San Francisco, and everyone breathes a collective sigh of relief. Each girl has found the school where she fits.

When the cycle starts again next year I will begin like I always do—by asking parents to consider “Who is my child?” This is a big question that can take families in many directions. When thinking about high school, though, reflect on your child’s previous and current school experiences. What worked or didn’t work for them, both in the classroom and in the school community? How does your child learn best? What size school, and what size classroom, would be ideal for them? Do they need or want close relationships with their teachers?

As you generate answers to these questions, it is important to start having conversations with your son or daughter to gather their thoughts as well. Students will be able to offer their own important insights to these questions, and they should have a clear voice in this process. With everyone’s initial input gathered, the family should establish parameters for the search, including whether you will look at public, parochial and/or independent schools and whether or not you will consider boarding schools.

There are a number of factors to consider when determining which school or schools will be the best fit. It’s easy to get swept up in rankings of high schools such as those produced by publications such as US News and World Report. However, these rankings look at schools through a narrow lens, primarily through courses offered and test results achieved. It can also be easy to get caught up in gossip or other people’s opinions about different schools. I believe that while all of this information might be interesting and somewhat useful, there are other more important things to assess when determining the best high school fit.

Consider the criteria listed below and where they relate to your student’s learning profile, their social-emotional development, and their interests. Developing an understanding of how or if these criteria are important to you will allow you to more thoughtfully define your search process.

  • Mission and Values: Find out if your schools of interest have a mission statement and/or a set of core values; then find out if they are true to their mission in their programs and processes.
  • Core Curriculum: Investigate courses offered and graduation requirements to learn about opportunities as well as what may be missing.
  • Elective courses: Find out what options exist beyond the core courses and how much time is offered in a typical schedule to take electives.
  • 21st Century Learning: There is a lot of buzz around this phrase right now, so find out what a school means when they talk about 21st Century Learning, and then find out if they are putting it into practice effectively.
  • Inclusivity/social justice/diversity: The questions regarding whether or not a high school community is inclusive are endless. Most importantly, find out if the schools you are interested in are walking the talk.
  • Technology: How is technology being employed as a learning tool? Does the school teach responsible use? What type of professional development are teachers doing with regards to integrating technology into their classroom?
  • Arts: If the arts are important to your student, find out if they are considered an important part of the curriculum or if they are relegated to after school hours only.
  • SEL: This stands for social-emotional learning. The high school years are a critical time in a young person’s development so find out what different schools teach with regards to social-emotional learning. This is too often overlooked!
  • Advisory: Does the school have an advisory program? How is it structured? What are the goals of the program at each grade level?
  • Athletics: First, determine whether or not your student wants to play in a competitive athletic program or if they are more interested in participating for the sake of building friendships and staying healthy. At some high schools, teams are very difficult to make, so if your child really wants to participate in high school athletics, make sure that their current skill level and desires matches the programs at your schools of interest.
  • Financial Assistance: If you want to send your child to a private school but think you may need financial assistance, find out how much the school gives out in assistance each year as well as the average award. Then try to learn more about how your individual financial profile does or does not mesh with current financial assistance recipients.
  • Professional Development: Does the school have a robust program for teachers to learn and grow, and do teachers take advantage of the opportunities provided?

These criteria should serve as a launching point for your family’s search. There are undoubtedly more criteria that you will develop as a family as you move deeper into your search. The right high school for your student goes well beyond statistics available about standardized testing results and the number of advanced or honors level courses offered. The high school that your student eventually enrolls in should be the absolute next best place for them to learn and grow, in all facets of their life. Best of luck as you embark on this fascinating journey as a family!

Lisa Spengler is the High School Counselor and Wellness Coordinator at Katherine Delmar Burke School in San Francisco, a K-8 girls school.

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