US News Ranking Analysis

Wellesley High School 2021 Rankings

See Wellesley’s 2021 US News Ranking

Analysis of Wellesley Ranking Compared to Other MA Pier Schools

The point has been made in discussion with various parent groups that the ranking of Wellesley HS in national rankings has declined. A preliminary assessment of this indicates that there may be some basis to this assertion. Examination of the data indicates that the source of the decline is a result of math and reading proficiency.

The Word on the Street & Ranking

Discussions of ranking decline tosses around various numbers such as declined from 4 to 28, or from 12 to 26. The first problem then is to determine what ranking system is being used.

The most commonly referenced ranking is the “U.S. News & World Report” high school ranking. US News has published high school rankings since 2007. However, in 2019, the publication changed its methodology. Consequently, a pre-2019 ranking in the survey is not comparable to a post-2019 ranking.

This paper works with the 2019, 2020 and 2021 rankings as published by US News.

A further complication to analysis is that US News publishes the rankings on-line. Obtaining data from earlier years is quite difficult as there does not seem to be a single source to view past rankings.

Wellesley HS Ranking

In the 2021 rankings, Wellesley HS ranked 26th in the state, an improvement over 2020 when it ranked 28th, but a marked decline from 2019 when it ranked 19th.

The concern when using statistics is whether a change is “statistically significant”. A movement from 12th to 13th position might not be significant, but in this instance I would posit that a decline from 19th to 26th is statistically significant.

One of the better ways to examine such a change is to see how Wellesley HS fared compared to what the School Committee regards as our “peer” schools. The annual district report list 17 school systems that the Committee compares Wellesley HS to. In the 2021 rankings those school systems ranged in rank from a high of 7th (Lexington) to a low of 68th (Lincoln-Sudbury).

For the purposes of visually observing the movement in the rankings over the past three years the graph below looks only at schools in the top 25 as of the 2019 rankings and shows their movements in the recent three years.

Among the top-3 schools, Lexington, Dover-Sherborn and Belmont, there is a demonstrated ability to not just be at a high ranking, but to sustain that position over time.

In the next group, there is considerable volatility and the result of the volatility is, with one exception, not good. All of the schools in the lower group save Weston, are at a lower rank in 2021 than they were in 2019.

Weston is the one exception. In 2020 the school increased its ranking significantly and then held the ranking in 2021. It would seem to early to say whether or not the school can sustain the improvement.

Why Do Schools Move?

There are six components to the US News ranking system, but four of them combine into two elements that comprise 80% of the ranking.

One is “college readiness” (30%) and “college curriculum breadth” (10%). This part of the score looks at students who took AP course and passed AP course, with the pass being weighted more heavily that just taking the course. The “breadth” component looks at how many students took a wide variety of AP courses an exams.

The second major element is “reading and math proficiency” (20%) and “reading and math performance” (20%). This component looks at how well students perform on the MCATs and also looks at how well the students perform against a model of expected performance based on school demographics, income and the like.

Unfortunately, US News does not publish the performance of each school in each category. What is published is partial data relating to the AP component, partial data relating to the reading and math proficiency and then the graduation rate.

Taking the data that is published leads to the table below:

This is from the 2021 data. The question we are now asking is, “What distinguishes the top four schools from the rest?”

Graduation rate can be tossed immediately from consideration. There is only a 2% variation between schools and given a weighting of 10% in the rankings, it will account for little.

Given the conversation of late from the School Committee that AP courses are being cut and students referred to “Honors’ courses, this would seem to be a prime suspect for the decline. While this may be part of the cause, I suspect it is a relatively small component. It is true that relative to the top 4 with the exception of D-S fewer Wellesley HS students take AP courses. But of those who do take AP courses, a significant proportion pass.

Wedfield and Weston look good, at least in terms of the percentage of students taking an AP course, but the difference between those taking and those passing likely hurts their overall rank.

Nevertheless, a policy at Wellesley HS to decrease the number of AP offerings and enrollment in AP courses will eventually impact our position in the rankings.

The only item left for consideration is reading and math proficiency. Two points are striking here between the top-4 and the rest.

First, the scores are 89% or better in both reading and math at all of the top-4. Second, with the exception of Lexington, the difference between the reading and math score is only 1 percentage point. A high ranking would seem determined by not just a high overall score, but by consistent performance in the two score areas.

As well as Wellesley does on math at 89%, the ranking is harmed by a 4 percentage point difference between the math and reading score. Lexington has the same difference, but winds up with a higher ranking because it is starting with a math score of 96% and even with a 4 point difference realizes a reading score of 92%.

Winchester – A Cautionary Tale?

As the graph indicates, Winchester has fallen precipitously in the rankings. Yet, it is notable that the reading and math proficiency scores at 86% in both reading and math are quite close to the Wellesley scores and are the same in both reading and math. However, on the AP measures Winchester is significantly lower in both enrollment and success in AP courses.

This suggests that it will be insufficient to improve the Wellesley reading and math proficiency if at the same time AP course and college readiness are ignored. To advance in the rankings Wellesley will need to improve reading and math proficiency while sustaining the AP environment.

Final Thoughts

A longitudinal study of three data points is not truly sufficient to establish trends.

That being said, one cannot escape the observation that the best schools are consistently the best schools. The best schools show over even this limited timeframe consistent performance. Whereas the less highly ranked school display considerable volatility in their ranking.

From a school management perspective, I would suggest that the volatility is a greater issue than higher or lower ranking. If component of the ranking is stable and consistent it would seem to provide a more certain base to improve from than if the component is moving around from year to year leaving school with the challenging goal of trying to improve a moving target.

Stephen Maire

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