About Widgets and Judging Schools!

By Joseph Batory. Published in the Delaware County Daily Times, April 25, 2020

US News and World Report has just issued its annual list of the best high schools in the USA.  Not surprisingly, high schools across America which either serve students from the upper classes and those which have academic entrance requirements filled out the top ratings. 

Unfortunately, the US News and World Report evaluation like many others, seems to view schools as factories with “student widgets” rolling down the educational assembly lines. So, figuring out which schools are good ones is easy! Good schools just pour “magic learning potions” into their pupil heads and most of the students come out perfectly. Standardized test results of students or numbers of pupils headed for college are then used to publicly proclaim which high schools are the good ones.

That naïve perspective pervades far too much of the views of public education across the nation and it is naïve at best. To begin, students in many public schools are hardly uniform widgets but usually a mass of challenging abilities and backgrounds.  That diversity creates many differences in academic and other needs for schools that serve such populations.  Student socioeconomic backgrounds, poverty levels and racial and ethnic diversity, as well as the mobility of the population (transfers in and out) create massive challenges academically. Additionally, many high schools also have large numbers of pupil newcomers in need of help with learning English as well as many special needs pupils.  Most of these schools will never have outstanding overall standardized test scores.

So, forget about superficial evaluations of schools which use test scores, or numbers of college admissions, to make judgments.  The use of such outcomes to ultimately rate the quality of any school is absurd.  And that is because the student populations which are enrolled in schools across the USA are all so different.

The bottom line is that what any public school achieves with a diverse population of students or with large numbers of poverty students achieves cannot be easily measured.  Most public schools are hardly filled with factory-ordered homogenized widgets. Simplistic ratings of schools against each other as if they are all equal is absurd. 

Below is a typical sample of students which might be found in large numbers in any typical public high school in a non-affluent community.  If the standardized test scores for this group of students were averaged, this school would probably be classified by “experts” as mediocre at best and perhaps as failing.  But this school is in fact successful in many ways.  And the average test scores of this student group can never describe what this school accomplishes:

  • Susie Brilliant is an academic high achiever involved in many activities. Her test scores are very high.
  • Randy Rising Star is from a family in which no one had ever gone to college. Nevertheless, Randy has pursued his high school’s college prep program. His standardized test scores are only average as well as his SAT’s.  But he has already been accepted to attend several different universities.
  • Nelly Newcomer is the daughter of immigrants.  She has overcome the English language barrier but still doesn’t test well. Nevertheless, she has succeeded very well in her college prep high school classes and is headed to college after graduation.
  • Allisa Average is a non-college prep student.  She does not do well on tests. But she is a conscientious member of student council and is headed for community college to study computer science in the fall.
  • Johnny Jones transferred into this high school in his sophomore year from an urban area. Johnny thought that fighting was the answer to being respected in high school and he did so frequently and was suspended often. But with lots of personal attention from a guidance counselor and several caring teachers, Johnny in his senior year no longer fights at the drop of a hat. Johnny now has passing grades in his business courses, but he is far from scholarly. He is hoping to enlist in the US Marines after graduation.
  • Sammy Slow Learner has a below average IQ but he is not a special education student.  He tries hard and gets by academically in his vocational curriculum but does not do well on standardized tests. Sammy has worked part-time for a large retail store while still in school and has been promised a full-time job there after graduation.
  • David Deprived comes from a terrible home environment.  He had no interest in school when he started as a frosh, but he has pursued carpentry courses in high school and is planning to attend a trade school after graduation.  He is a “B” student in vocational courses and excels in “hands on” projects.  But he does not test well.
  • Tommy Transfer was expelled from a nearby school for disciplinary reasons.  But Tommy has now discovered football as his primary interest and, motivated by coaches and teachers, is staying put of trouble and is enrolled in the college prep program.  His test scores are average at best.
  • Debbie Difficulty was regularly in and out of trouble and always pleaded her innocence. Befriended by a dedicated teacher, she managing to get passing grades in her commercial courses.  Her disciplinary infractions have stopped, but she still does not do well on tests.

The student sample above offers just a bit of high school reality across our nation because it is not unusual to find many similar young people enrolled in many American public schools.  And if such a group of students was judged by the overall average of their standardized test score results or numbers headed for college, that school would probably be rated in the low to middle range. And yet, in many ways, this school might be succeeding with its students.   

High schools with homogeneous student populations from affluent communities or those that have academic entrance requirements may certainly be doing well with their students.  

At the same time, those public schools that work in a myriad of ways to meet the many different needs of a diverse student body or a majority of kids from a poverty community are often underrated and undervalued.

Comparing schools with differing pupil populations is not a simple matter.


Joseph Batory is a past superintendent of schools in Upper Darby. He is the author of three books and writes about politics, education and history.

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