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Why City Honors will always rank as a top high school

US News & World report came out with their annual high school rankings this week and -- surprise -- City Honors got a "gold medal" as the No. 3 public high school in the state, and the No. 23 high school in the country.

The school's exact ranking varies somewhat from year to year. Last year, for instance, it was ranked No. 90 in the country. But it's a pretty sure bet that City Honors will always land somewhere on the list of the top schools in the country.

Here's why.

US News & World Report uses a three-part methodology for determining the top schools.

Step 1: The first step determined whether each school's students were performing better than statistically expected for the average student in the state. We started by looking at reading and math results for all students on each state's high school proficiency tests.

Well, let's think about this for a minute.

We all know students have to go through a pretty rigorous screening process to get into City Honors. The school takes only the best students in the city.

CityHonorsPart of that screening process looks at each student's English and math scores on state tests. City Honors is looking for "students who perform above average on standardized tests. Ideally, Level 4 on the New York State ELA and math tests (minimum Level 3)."

That means the school is ensuring its students have some of the best scores around, before they even walk in the door.

(Some of the other traits the school is looking for in prospective students: those "who get good grades -- all or most grades are A’s and B’s"; those "whose teachers recommend them for extraordinary effort, attitude, study skills and willingness to take on a challenge"; and those with "strong writing skills." The school's current administration, by the way, has made significant strides in making the admissions process more transparent and more easily understood by a greater number of people, by many acccounts.)

And only a small number of students get into City Honors.

In a recent year, for instance, there were 2,900 kids in ninth grade in the Buffalo Public Schools; 135 of them were at City Honors. That means less than 5 percent of the kids in the city schools get into City Honors.

But consider also that kids from private schools and charter schools in the city also try to get in -- not to mention, kids who live in the suburbs are even allowed to take the test. (Yes, that's right. If they are accepted to the school, they are given a few months to move into the city.)

In fact, when district officials defend City Honors' racial composition -- 23 percent of its students are black, compared to 55 percent districtwide, for instance -- they often say that the school draws from private schools, as well. So they contend that its racial composition is not actually out of whack with the city's student population.

At any rate, City Honors literally admits only the top few percent of students in Buffalo -- well, maybe the region -- and math and English test scores are among the criteria used to screen them.

The school would have to be doing something wrong if its students were not scoring higher than state averages on English and math tests, it would seem.

Step 2: For those schools that made it past this first step, the second step determined whether the school's least-advantaged students (black, Hispanic, and low-income) were performing better than average for similar students in the state.

See above.

All students at City Honors have to get through the school's screening process. It stands to reason that students are performing better than their peers statewide within whatever demographic group they're in.

Step 3: This third step measured which schools produced the best college-level achievement for the highest percentages of their students. This was done by computing a "college readiness index" based on the school's AP or IB participation rate (the number of 12th-grade students in the 2009-2010 academic year who took at least one AP or IB test before or during their senior year, divided by the number of 12th graders) and how well the students did on those tests.

In other words, the more students who take AP or IB tests, the higher the school scores.

At City Honors, "all students take a minimum of three Advanced Placement (AP) and two International Baccalaureate (IB) courses. Most take much more than this."

In other words, the school's curriculum happens to be designed in such a way that it guarantees one of the measures in Step 3 (the percentage of kids taking AP or IB tests) is high.

Factor in the reality that City Honors chooses only the top few percent of students, based on their academic track record, and it stands to reason that there's a good chance those students will score well on those tests -- the other measure in Step 3 of the US News & World Report methodology.

- Mary Pasciak

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