Northside College Prep, at 5500 N. Kedzie, shown in February. In April, U.S. News online ranked Northside the No. 1 public high school in Illinois.
  • Ashlee Rezin/for Sun-Times Media
  • Northside College Prep, at 5500 N. Kedzie, shown in February. In April, U.S. News online ranked Northside the No. 1 public high school in Illinois.

Some of the highest-ranked public high schools in Illinois are Chicago schools. I’ve mentioned this from time to time, as have other local education writers. This year, U.S. News online, which ranks the public schools, deemed Chicago’s Northside College Prep the state’s top-ranked high school. Payton Prep, Jones Prep, and Whitney Young Magnet, all CPS schools, came in second, third, and fourth, and Lane Tech was eighth.

Jones Prep notes its U.S. News ranking prominently on its website. Payton Prep’s website says bashfully that “Some are impressed by the accolades” the school has received, and lists its U.S. News ranking among them.

But what exactly do the rankings mean?

U.S. News says it publishes the rankings to identify the nation’s “top-performing” high schools. The rankings are based on how a school’s students perform on standardized tests and how well they’re prepared for college. Demographics are also a factor. To be recognized as a top high school, a school’s students must do better than expected on the standardized tests, given its proportion of economically disadvantaged students. African-American and Hispanic students, as well as economically disadvantaged students, also must do better as a group than their state averages. Schools that meet these requisites then are ranked based on their students’ college readiness, as measured by their performance on Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate tests.

So far, not so bad. But the overall rankings are for all high schools, whether they’re selective enrollment or not. Northside, Payton, Jones, Young, and Lane are all selective enrollment. Students need lofty test scores and sterling elementary school grades to get in. Comparing the selective schools with neighborhood schools is like comparing youth sports teams that pick the best from their tryouts with teams that take all comers.

In March, shortly before U.S. News published this year’s rankings, Bob Morse, director of data research for the publication, wrote on its website that because of the comprehensive methodology, the rankings show “how well high schools serve all of their students.”

But the rankings seem a better measure of how well schools are attracting top students, whether because of the schools’ affluent locations or their selectivity. (Most of the high-ranking non-selective Illinois schools are in prosperous suburbs.) To gauge how a school is serving its students, one would need to compare how students were doing when they entered the school with how they were doing when they graduated.

Not that this would be easy to measure or couldn’t be gamed. Nor am I recommending this as a new method. I don’t see what purpose rankings of high schools serve, and am less inclined to mention them in future stories. The current U.S. News approach mainly seems to give a pat on the back to schools for being well off.

Lucy Wang helped research this post.