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Harford high schools absent from U.S. News rankings, but should they be?

Harford County's high schools are conspicuously absent from U.S. News & World Report's Best High Schools rankings for 2014, despite some of them seemingly having higher scores than the three high schools in neighboring Cecil County that qualified for the national lists.

U.S. News publishes annual rankings of high schools, colleges and graduate schools across the country.

Officials with the news and data analysis publisher partnered with members of the American Institutes for Research, headquartered in Washington, D.C., to review data on thousands of high schools.

The finished report has been published online at http://www.usnews.com/education/best-high-schools. The rankings were released in late April.

Readers can see the rankings of nearly 20,000 high schools, as well as detailed profiles of each schools test data, college readiness level and student population.

Despite Harford County Public Schools' absence from the top ranks, school officials and school board members noted there are multiple rankings of schools across the nation, and each ranking is developed with different criteria.

"I feel very confident that we offer an opportunity for a quality education here in Harford County, and I believe that we're continuing to move in the right direction," Board of Education member Robert Frisch said Tuesday.

Frisch added: "There's a lot more to education than just academic accolades, so I'm really not concerned in that regard."

It's not that Harford schools haven't earned plenty of honors. Fallston High School was a silver medal school in the 2013 U.S. News rankings, placing 1,531 nationally and 44th in Maryland.

A few Harford high schools have annually placed on the list of 2,000 top schools in the U.S. that was compiled by Newsweek magazine and then its online successor, Daily Beast/Newsweek. On the 2013 list, which represents about 6 percent of all high schools, were C. Milton Wright High School in Bel Air at 777 and Patterson Mill High School in Bel Air at 1127.

More recently, Aberdeen High School received a top national honor in January from the National Math and Science Initiative for its students' gains in Advanced Placement test scores. Havre de Grace High students were similarly highly ranked by the same organization for their AP score gains.

U.S. News and American Institutes for Research officials used three major criteria for their rankings: the students' proficiency level on state math and English exams and whether they were above the state average; if minority and low-income students performed above the state average for their peers and each school's College Readiness Index.

The College Readiness Index is based on the number of students who take and pass Advanced Placement tests and how students perform on International Baccalaureate exams.

The schools with the 500 highest college readiness scores qualified for gold medals; the schools which were ranked between 501 and 2,019 qualified for silver medals, and the remaining 2,688 top-ranked schools qualified for bronze medals as "recognized nationally," according to the magazine.

Two Cecil County high schools, Bohemia Manor and Elkton, qualified for silver medals; they had college readiness scores of 29.5 and 18.4, respectively.

Ninety-eight percent of Bohemia Manor students were proficient in algebra, above the state average, and 89 percent were proficient in English, close to the state average.

For Elkton High students, 95 percent were proficient in algebra and 86 percent were proficient in English, near the state average.

Perryville High School had a college readiness score of 16; also, 96 percent were proficient in algebra, above the state average, and 90 percent were proficient in English, near the state average.

Perryville principal Charles Helm, who is in his third year as head of the school, noted administrators are working to encourage more students to take AP exams, from about 100 exams given during the 2011-2012 school year, to 155 exams this year, to a projected 220 to 230 next year.

"My faculty and my students are outstanding, and they take advantage of the opportunities that are provided to them, and they deserve a lot of credit for their hard work," Helm said Tuesday.

By comparison, the three top scorers in Harford County had college readiness scores well above the three in Cecil.

C. Milton Wright had a college readiness score of 42.1; Bel Air High had a score of 26.7 and Fallston High scored 26.4.

C. Milton Wright students were above the state average in algebra and English, with respective proficiencies of 96 and 92 percent.

Bel Air students were 98 percent proficient in algebra and 92 percent proficient in English.

Fallston students hit 98 percent proficiency in algebra and 90 percent proficiency in English; Bel Air and Fallston were both above the state average.

U.S. News' director of data could not be reached to comment on the rankings Tuesday because he is out of the country, according to a spokeswoman for the magazine.

Harford Schools Superintendent Barbara Canavan noted in an emailed statement Tuesday that eight of Harford County's 10 high schools were recognized among 100 top high schools in the state in The Washington Post's Most Challenging High School List.

"While we appreciate recognition on lists ranking high schools across the nation, our focus has been and will remain on affording every student the opportunity to excel regardless of where Harford County Public Schools will rank on an index," Canavan stated.

Harford School Board President Nancy Reynolds echoed similar sentiments.

"The Board members and I understand that there is positive recognition in national rankings and certainly appreciate when Harford County Public Schools is included on those lists," Reynolds wrote in an email Tuesday. "However, those lists can be determined by any number of criteria."

Reynolds noted she and her fellow board members "recognize the hard-work, dedication and achievements in our schools every day, regardless of survey results."

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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