In late April U.S. News & World Report released their Best High Schools Rankings for 2019. While on the Fairfax County side of Falls Church Marshal High School climbed two slots to #6 in the state, the release immediately raised many questions for Falls Church City’s George Mason High School, which went from a 2018 rank of #157 nationally and #2 in Virginia, to a 2019 rank of #515 nationally, and #12 in Virginia. While it’s true that some area schools from the 2018 list surpassed George Mason this year, there is more narrative to unpack in determining why George Mason’s ranking dropped, and why we shouldn’t necessarily raise the alarm bells too loudly, or at least determine what exactly to raise them for.

First and foremost, no matter how you look at it, we’re talking about being in the top 3% nationwide. Coming to an understanding of the ranking drop ultimately came down to splitting some hairs between schools, and didn’t necessarily show a decline in performance so much as a change in methodology that favored other schools a bit more. In fact, according to U.S. News, the ranking methodology changed so significantly that they say, “a school’s ranking in the 2019 Best High Schools ranking can’t be compared with its rankings in any previous U.S. News ranking.”
Second, the data used was from the 2016-17 school year, so we’re not talking about a real time ranking system. This also means the ship has sailed on the data that will be used for the 2020 and 2021 rankings as well. If there will be any desire to adapt and improve this particular rank, it would would not be actionable until this coming 2019-2020 school year, and wouldn’t hit the publicized ranking until Spring 2022. Of course it will be impossible to know if the same methodology will be in place by that time.

Third, and very importantly, there was a massive difference in the the sheer number of schools included, which accounted for the majority of George Mason’s drop nationally. In 2018 just 2,700 high schools were ranked, while in 2019 U.S. News ranked 17,245 public high schools out of 23,000 reviewed. For the first time they included all 1,760 eligible charter schools, and all 857 eligible magnet schools. Eligibility was based on having sufficient enough enrollment to be analyzed, which for their purposes was a 12th grade enrollment size of just 15 students or more. Again, this had an impact on the national ranking, but the state ranking was impacted primarily by the methodology change.

This year’s methodology moved to simplify the rankings and make it easier to understand how one school ranked higher than another by scoring the schools on a 0-100 scale based on the selected criteria and formulations. Criteria included “College Readiness”, given 30% weight in the overall score, and among other criteria there was an increased emphasis on the performance of the underserved student population (black, hispanic, and low income – 10% weight in the scoring) within each school and whether schools are doing an adequate job helping those students stay on par with the broader population. According to the posted methodology, this factor took into consideration the performance of the underserved population relative to the state’s typical gap in performance, and applied a penalty on a sliding scale that increased the further the scores came in below the state average. For more details you can go directly to the U.S. News explanation, which also provides a link to the full methodology.

To break down the rankings, U.S. News used the 100 point scale mentioned above, but took the rankings 2 decimal points deeper in order to find enough separation to limit ties. To use only the Virginia Rankings as an example, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology ranked #1 in Virginia (#4 Overall) at a score of 99.98, while George Mason High School ranked #12 in Virginia at a score of 97.01, and Marshal High School was #6 in Virginia at score of 98.55.

Despite the effort to create simplicity and transparency, understanding George Mason’s ranking took me into some pretty deep grass. I am not claiming to have made it to the other side, but here’s a synopsis of what I found.

George Mason scored better on college readiness (a 30% weight in the overall score) than 6 of the Virginia schools ranked higher on the list, including Open High School in Richmond that scored just 53.4% in that category. Additionally, a comparative glance at each school’s “scorecard”  as a whole didn’t bring things into much greater focus. George Mason’s scorecard had a clean sweep against 2 higher ranking schools, and compared with 4 other schools, led in 4 of the 5 categories listed.

GEORGE MASON                                               MARSHALL


While it is circulating that the rankings now put higher weight on AP vs. IB programs, U.S. News does claim to do so, and in execution of the results, Marshall High School, also an IB centered school, did rise two spots in the rankings. So that word on the street did prove false, and did not explain the differences. Participation in AP and/or IB exams, however, factored in significantly. 

In my findings the performance of the underserved population of students tilted the scales part of the way, with a state exam proficiency rate of 80.3% vs. 93.5% for the non-underserved student population. As we already mentioned, performance among underserved populations was an added emphasis in this years ranking methodology, and is certainly an item to be taken seriously moving forward. 

Another factor that stands out is the pass rate of IB/AP exams verses the pass rate of other schools. George Mason had a 69% pass rate for AP, and 77% for IB exams (a combined calculation of 72% was used for the scorecard), a number factored into the College Readiness score, which made up 30% of the ranking formula.

Each of the 11 schools ranked ahead of George Mason had either a higher proficiency rate among underserved populations, a higher pass rate for AP/IB exams or both. 

Finally, Standards of Learning (SOL – 20% weight in scoring) performance seems to have made the biggest difference of all. George Mason scored in the 92.2 percentile, while Marshal scored at 97.8%. Furthermore, each of the schools ranked ahead of George Mason had a stronger Standards of Leaning performance, making it the single consistent thread (that I found so far) among higher ranking schools.

I need to emphasize that these are rudimentary findings that still have some loose ends. For instance, George Mason had a higher College Readiness score than Marshall High School, yet Marshall had much higher AP/IB exam pass rate (80% & 88% respectively). It’s possible this is because Mason had a higher overall participation rate in the exams. Nonetheless, with a higher college readiness score (30% of the weight) vs. Marshall’s higher underserved student score (10% of the weight) I’m confident there is plenty more that remains to be unpacked, including how much the combination of factors impacted the final scoring, and whether the SOL delta was enough to drag George Mason behind despite the other factors.

Ultimately, my hope with this month’s Newsletter is to add some firmer foundation to the school ranking discussions throughout the community. From here may the information related to the methodology fall into hands more capable of discerning them! 

From where I sit, as I mentioned at the top, we are nit picking between the top 3% of schools nationwide, and Falls Church residents as a whole are fortunate to have two (three if you include the Falls Church addresses that feed into McLean High School) world class schools available within such a small area.

NOTE: Given the length of this month’s Newsletter a print version will not be going out.