The List Game

On, one would have thought that surely this week’s inventory of the 100 best places to live would top the most-emailed list. There’s nothing people love more than a good old-fashioned “best of” list (see: U.S. News & World Report), and nothing they hate more than a “best of” list without them on it. Either way, you’re going to get a reaction.

CNN, along with Money magazine, looked at factors like education scores, unemployment, income growth, crime, and arts resources to narrow down the list, and ended up not just with the Big 100, but also Top 10s for a number of categories, such as “most golf courses,” “lowest commute time,” “priciest homes,” and “coldest.” (They’re also probably hearing loud complaints from small-towners now for their decision to exclude towns that were more than 60 miles away from a major airport or 30 miles from a hospital, and those with populations less than 14,000. Then again, those people probably aren’t the target audience for Money, anyway.) Sure it’s a little silly — and lord knows we’re not packing up and moving to list-topper Moorestown, NJ any time soon — but it’s a fun list.

But while the CNN list enters the world with fresh young eyes, a list now over two months old is still crying out for media attention from its starchy hospital bed. That old geezer is the list of the 100 best high schools in America, as calculated by a formula devised by Washington Post education columnist Jay Mathews.

This year’s top 100 list, published in Newsweek on May 10, has held a featured spot on the Post’s online education section since its release. It was also the subject of Mathews’ May 10 column, in which he prepared for the annual onslaught of criticism, writing, “I have to start practicing my bobbing, weaving, ducking and other defensive measures as the many intelligent and conscientious people who don’t like what Newsweek and I have done come after me.”

The formula is a simple one — “take the total number of AP or IB tests given at a school in May, and divide by the number of seniors graduating in June.” The list of top schools you end up with varies substantially from what many would regard as the nation’s top 100 schools. Mathews’ “Challenge Index” exposes some elite schools that dissuade low-performing students from taking AP tests, and recognizes schools that may perform poorly on standardized tests but nonetheless push students to take the most challenging classes possible.

It’s no surprise, then, that the list would cause such a commotion. Not only is this a ranking of public schools — something bound to get parents in a tizzy — but it’s a ranking that elevates some poor, low-performing schools above rich ones that send nearly all of the students on to four-year universities. The Christian Science Monitor ran an article headlined “A top-100 list roils high schools” on May 12 discussing the effects of school rankings lists. A week later, the St. Petersburg Times ran a piece trying to make sense of how a high school in Tampa had “earned a D grade from the state last year” but managed to land slot #10 on Newsweek’s list. And of course education blogs immediately took a sledgehammer to the rankings.

We’re not surprised that people reacted to the list. We’re not surprised that Mathews is standing behind it, despite a highly questionable choice of formula. We’re not even surprised that the Post has kept this contentious list along with the related columns and articles in a featured box on the Web site for the past two months (which says as much about the media’s love of lists as it does about the list itself).

But on Tuesday, Mathews ran a 4300-word column that was basically just an FAQ about the rankings system. In it he admits his reason for ranking the top 100 schools (instead of just presenting them all as equally impressive): “Like most journalists, I learned long ago that we are tribal primates with a deep commitment to pecking orders. We cannot resist looking at ranked lists. It doesn’t matter what it is — SUVs, ice cream stores, football teams, fertilizer dispensers. We want to see who is on top and who is not. So I rank to get attention, nothing more, in hopes people will then argue about the list and in the process think about the issues it raises.” (Italics ours.)

Further, Mathews wrote, “Some very energetic researchers in Iowa have found two more schools that we missed,” and he promised “a separate column about their remarkable effort and why they think their fine state has only four schools on the list.”

Mathews gets points for honesty: It’s not every day someone admits a supposedly empirical study is mostly, if not entirely, a publicity stunt. (No points, though, for rehashing his own publicity stunt. Twice.)

Here at CJR Daily, we’re thinking about a list of our own: The top 100 reasons to be skeptical about lists.

Samantha Henig

Correction: The above post has been changed to reflect that CNN.som does have a “most emailed” list.

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Samantha Henig was a CJR Daily intern.