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Merrimack H.S. officials reflect on rank

MERRIMACK — Merrimack School officials reflected on what looks like lower rankings this year for the school district from two widely known and publicized school ranking websites during a recent school board meeting last week.

In an ongoing effort to make improvements within the Merrimack School District, Superintendent Mark McLaughlin said he prefers to tackle these types of issues head on.

“I don’t think there’s any gain in singing a song, ‘Everything is awesome, nothing to fix and no problem here.’ That’s not reality in any situation and it’s not reality in our school district or in any school for that matter,” McLaughlin said during last week’s school board meeting.

During September’s board meeting, Merrimack High School Principal Sharon Putney shared information on graduation rates, which could be interpreted differently if not properly understood.

Acknowledging this, McLaughlin spent time during last week’s school board meeting explaining how the high school ranking system works.

The two most widely known and publicized school rankings come from U.S. News and World Report and Niche, McLaughlin said.

According to U.S. News and World Report, Merrimack High School most recently ranked 51st within New Hampshire and 8,082 nationally.

As for Niche, the district received an overall B+ was ranked 28 out of 70 for Best School Districts in New Hampshire.

The data used by U.S. News World Report and Niche comes from third party sources, not directly from the school.

McLaughlin said the data analyzed by U.S. News World Report and Niche derives from the US Department of Education, state-wide math and reading level assessment tests, high school graduation rates and other factors.

Niche School rankings are based on “real opinions” from parents and students on things like the college prep programs of a school, the quality of the cafeteria food, academic achievement, sports diversity and the quality of school administration, McLaughlin said.

Despite the rank, according to McLaughlin, there’s more to the story.

The methodology for determining rank has changed this year, McLaughlin also noted.

In 2018, high schools were ranked on the College Readiness Index, which measures student performance and participation by high school seniors only on Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams.

“So 100 percent of the rankings were based on standardized tests,” McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin said in 2018, only 2,700 schools were ranked because not every high school in the country has an International Baccalaureate program, Merrimack included.

In 2019, The U.S. News and World Report created six indicators for their rankings, which includes college readiness, college curriculum breadth, math and reading proficiency, math and reading performance, underserved student performance and graduation rate. This year more than 16,000 high schools were ranked.

“Now you’re comparing against a much broader population of schools,” McLaughlin said

Despite being 2019 data, McLaughlin said U.S. News and World Report was going off of data from the number of seniors in the years 2016-2017.

Still, since Merrimack High School does not offer the International Baccalaureate Program, the score for the college readiness category would not be as high as those schools that do offer the program.

“If every student got a five who took an AP exam, the highest score you would get, and even if 100 percent of our students did that, the most we could get is half of the total score because we don’t have the other half which is the International Baccalaureate. So that just is what it is, but it complicates the interpretation of a school ranking,” McLaughlin explained.

This also affects the college curriculum breadth category, which is dervied from the percentage of students who passed multiple Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams.

“The assumption is that if you do well on an Advanced Placement Exam that means you have a broad curriculum,” McLaughlin said.

He added, “There are lots and lots of things that are not calculated, like for instance, just merely the difference of learners and the proportion of students with a variety of learning challenges.”

On Niche, schools are able to manage their own profile, track engagement and even showcase the school if they upgrade to “premium.”

McLaughlin said his goal was not to discredit the reports.

“Do you think I don’t want a number one ranking next year on U.S. News Report and Niche? Absolutely I do, but I’m a little bit concerned about the kind of things that one must do to get that and I keep asking myself, “Is that representative of where we’re really trying to go in this district?'” McLaughlin said.

“We’re talking about authentic learning. We want students to actually understand what they’re taught and not just prepare for a test so it looks awesome on some state report,” he added.

Grace Pecci may be reached at 603-594-1243 or gpecci@nashuatelegraph.com.