The Truth Behind DCSD and the “US News” Best High School Rankings

Liz Fagen and Kevin Larsen spoke on KHOW 630 AM last week to address the fact that NO Douglas County School District (DCSD) schools were ranked on the US News and World Report Best High Schools list, for the second consecutive year. Fagen and Larsen claim that DCSD schools aren’t on the list because US News unfairly “weights” poverty (free and reduced lunch eligible) and therefore DCSD schools don’t qualify. The host of the radio program, Mandy Connell, agreed, and commented that Cherry Creek (CCSD) also didn’t have schools on the list. That, however, is not true–CCSD does have schools ranked on the list, although CCSD has a higher free and reduced lunch percentage (30%) so it’s irrelevant to the argument.

Fagen says, on the KHOW recording, that she believes it was last year that US News changed their methodology–adding a “weighting” for particular students (at risk and minority). Interestingly, US News did change their methodology this year to make it easier for schools to appear on the lists (see screenshot below explaining step 1).

Connell explains that “weighting” means that schools with higher free and reduced lunch percentages “start out ahead,” that the methodology “give[s] them extra points.” Fagen says, “right.”

Fagen goes on to say that schools have “to show that those students [at risk, poverty, minority] perform high in these metrics, so if you are a district that has fewer your schools are penalized in the formula . . . you are unlikely to be able to be in the ranking.”

This portion of the conversation starts out about 75% of the way through the interview, available here.

Well, one might start to feel sorry for DCSD–it seems that the chips are stacked against a district with only 11% of students who are eligible for free and reduced lunch and has a student enrollment that is 76% white.

However, the sixth ranked school in Colorado is Aspen High School (ranked 214 Nationally). Aspen school district has a 5% free and reduced eligible population (and less diversity) while DCSD has 11%,–so much for the argument that schools with low free and reduced eligible students aren’t eligible for ranking.

Below are the Free & Reduced Lunch statistics for some districts in Colorado whose schools did show up on the ranking.

Free and Reduced percentages

Here are a few other examples that negate the argument that Fagen and Larsen insist is the reason DCSD doesn’t have any schools ranked on the list.

  • Academy 20 District
    • Air Academy, ranked #30, #1039 Nationally
    • 13% free and reduced eligibility (just two points higher than DCSD)
    • 74% white student demographic
  • Cheyenne Mountain District
    • Cheyenne Mountain ranked #20, #643 Nationally
    • 14% free and reduced eligibility (just three points higher than DCSD)
    • 74% white student demographic
  • Lewis Palmer District
    • Lewis Palmer ranked #17, #608 Nationally
    • 9% free and reduced eligibility (two points lower than DCSD)
    • 81% white student demographic

US News and World Report outlines the methodology used in the rankings. In Step 1–districts must have students perform “better than statistically expected for students in their state.” Clearly, Aspen and Lewis Palmer, with lower free and reduced eligible percentages, and Cheyenne Mountain and Academy 20, with percentages three and two points higher, respectively, than DCSD, all met that criteria. (See step 1 of the methodology below).

US news methodolgy step 1

Step 2 in the methodology is determining if a district’s “disadvantaged students – black, Hispanic and low-income – were outperforming disadvantaged students in the state.”

US News methodology step 2

Provided that a district (or school) met the step 1 and 2 criteria, the final step involved college readiness, including Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate data. Fagen and Larsen seemed to be blaming the methodology in step 1 or 2, rather than 3. However, step 3 is below.

US News methodology step 3

The methodology also takes into consideration the minority population of the schools. Below is district minority statistics found on Colorado Department of Education’s website. DCSD has a similar ethnic make-up to the other districts as well.


%White %Black %Hispanic %Asian %American Indian or Alaskan Native %Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander %Two or more races
DCSD 76% 2% 14% 4% 0% 0% 4%
Academy 20 74% 3% 12% 4% 0% 0% 6%
Aspen 86% 1% 11% 2% 0% 0% 0%
Cheyenne Mtn 74% 3% 14% 4% 0% 0% 5%
Lewis -Palmer 81% 1% 10% 3% 1% 0% 4%

Interestingly, US News and World Report states that it was actually easier to pass step 1 this year than last year. And yet, still no DCSD schools were ranked, whereas other districts with comparable poverty and minority students (some with less poverty and less diversity) did make the list. Perhaps these districts are truly “world class” and DCSD should be learning from them.

We know how hard the students and employees of DCSD are working each day. However, the bottom line is, the reforms being forced on the students of DCSD are not working and these are the results.