Jacksonville High School is the best high school in Calhoun County and ranks 33rd among schools statewide, according to rankings released Tuesday by U.S. News and World Report.
“Proud of the faculty and staff ... our hard working students and the support of our Jacksonville community,” Jacksonville schools superintendent Mark Petersen wrote in an email to The Anniston Star.
Nationwide rankings of cities and schools, compiled by nonprofits or media outlets, come out almost daily in the click-driven world of social media. Few ranking organizations have the clout of U.S. News, whose “best colleges” list has been watched carefully by university administrators since the 1980s.
The magazine’s high school ratings are less well-known, perhaps because only a handful of the country’s tens of thousands of schools can fit into the top tier. According to the U.S. News website, this year’s results are different, with about 17,000 public high schools in the rankings. That puts all the county’s schools in this year’s rankings.
The results are bound to be contentious in a county beset with school and community rivalries. Jacksonville outranked Oxford High School, named as No. 40 statewide. Anniston High scored higher than Wellborn and Weaver, two county schools immediately adjacent to the city.
The rankings looked at math and reading scores on statewide tests, as well as graduation rates. But the biggest factor was college readiness – and, in particular, participation in Advanced Placement courses designed to give students a leg up on college content.
In Jacksonville, more than half of seniors took AP tests, and 29 percent passed at least one AP exam. That’s higher than most local schools. Oxford posted similar numbers, but U.S. News didn’t have a graduation rate on file for the school. Attempts to reach Oxford High officials for comment were unsuccessful.
At the lowest-ranked school in the county – Weaver High – U.S. News says not a single student passed the AP exam.
Attempts to reach Weaver’s principal and Calhoun County Superintendent Donald Turner for comment were unsuccessful Tuesday. Madeline Smanik, a staffer for U.S. News, double-checked Weaver’s numbers in response to a question from The Star and said the organization believes they’re accurate.
Jacksonville High School principal Russ Waits said the rankings were good news for the school, though he cautioned against getting caught up in assessments created by someone outside the school system.
“There are a lot of lists for a lot of things,” he noted.
Waits said Jacksonville likely has a greater-than-average interest in the AP exam. Jacksonville is a college town, home to Jacksonville State University, and many of the students have parents who work at the college.
A decade ago, the push for more AP testing was all the rage among policymakers. Gov. Bob Riley in 2010 held a press conference to celebrate the fact that 10 percent of the state’s graduates had taken an AP exam — a surge compared to earlier numbers.
Since then, the mood has changed. Unemployment is around 4 percent, employers struggle to fill jobs in skilled fields like welding and electronics, and state officials talk often about “workforce development.” That’s usually shorthand for training of workers ready to take jobs right out of high school.
Asked how he marks progress, Waits cited both AP course participation and other programs, such as firefighting courses.
“We want to prepare all students for a successful life, no matter what path they take,” he said.
It’s not clear that U.S. News had shaken all of the bugs out of its ranking system Tuesday. For at least one local school, Wellborn High, the magazine listed more students passing AP exams than students who actually took the test. Asked about the numbers, U.S. news staffer Smanik said the figures were incorrect and would be adjusted. It’s unclear whether that change will affect Wellborn’s ranking. Attempts to reach Wellborn High administrators were unsuccessful.
The state in recent years has released its own ranking system of sorts, an A-through-F report card based on a variety of metrics. All high schools in the county are at B or C level in that ranking. Jacksonville falls in the middle of the pack, locally, in those scores.