Fuzzy Math

Americans love rankings: sexiest man alive, best-dressed woman, worst-dressed women, best colleges, best public high schools…and magazine editors gladly oblige.

Is there anything in a university PR person’s life that causes more agida than his or her employer’s standing in U.S. News & World Report’s highly debated and dissected annual college rankings issue? I wonder how many PR/image/marketing consultants claim to have the code for cracking the news weekly’s formula for bolstering a university’s position? (Likely the same number of SEO experts who claim the power to elevate a website in Google’s organic results rankings within the TOS.)

Today, the Washington Post/Newsweek education reporter Jay Matthews took some heat for Newsweek’s admittedly ill-conceived methodology that ranks the nation’s public high schools. Apparently, it’s a pretty simple algorithm. Divide the number of students taking AP classes by the number who go to college. It doesn’t make a bit of a difference that the students in those AP classes might scores 1’s and 2’s out of a possible 5. The more students who take AP classes, the better the school will fare. Simple as that.

“Newsweek’s one-variable-takes-all ratings of the 1,200 best high schools are often at odds with federal, state and local assessment systems that typically use more than a dozen measurements of performance” according to the piece in today’s Times.

The controversy probably doesn’t rise to the clamor that hit Newsweek when it published reports that Americans at Gitmo flushed a Koran down the toilet, but I would think that Mark Whitaker and company might strongly consider revamping its high school rankings methodology so that the results are more meaningful. It’s just “the right thing” to do.