The Top 50 School Districts 2008

In years past, we’ve focused our rankings on high schools, mainly because only the secondary level provided enough academic performance data to do the job. But now, testing mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act allows achievement tracking across all levels of instruction. We’ve used this flood of figures to identify school systems that stand out from their peers.

[sidebar]To come up with an overall ranking, statisticians I. Elaine Allen and Julia Seaman compared district-wide classroom quality indicators such as standardized scores and graduation rates for 105 school districts in the eight-county area. In a separate set of calculations, they ranked the performance of each district’s individual elementary, middle and high schools against their counterparts; the results, combined and weighted by number of students enrolled, are a fascinating snapshot of relative strengths and weaknesses among — and within — districts. Be aware, however, that the differences measured are small; most districts could potentially be ranked 10 places higher or lower on either list.

As a bonus, Allen and Seaman pinpointed districts that provide extra bang for the buck — that is, deliver academic outcomes greater than expected given school spending levels and housing costs to live in that district.

The Rankings
Click here for a chart with full rankings. (Downloads a PDF)

How We Prepared the Rankings
Our rankings were calculated by I. Elaine Allen, Ph.D., the research director of the Arthur M. Blank Center for Entrepreneurship at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and Julia E. Seaman, a research chemist at Genentech in San Francisco who holds a B.A. in chemistry and mathematics from Pomona College in Claremont, California. The analyses are based on the latest data available from the Pennsylvania and New Jersey departments of education at the time of collection by Philadelphia magazine. “District” was defined as a system of schools providing instruction from kindergarten level through 12th grade; in New Jersey, which in some areas has complicated cross-district feeder arrangements, certain schools serving up to K-8 were combined with their appropriate high-school districts for analysis and ranking. On the chart, these aggregate districts are listed only under the name of high-school district.

Several statistical techniques were used to combine and rank the school district data on performance, including factor analysis, standardization of scores, and Grey relational analysis, to create a common metric for comparison. If a school had a small amount of missing data, the mean of the missing item was used, so as not to bias the outcomes and so we could include the school’s results within its district. These techniques were also used to rank elementary, middle and high schools within districts. Finally, we examined performance with respect to costs in each district, to identify overperforming school districts.

Rankings for performance were calculated using a weighted average of academic variables including fifth-, eighth- and 11th-grade test scores in reading and math, SAT scores, student-faculty ratio, percent of graduating seniors, and percentage of graduates intending to enroll at two- and four-year colleges. Cost measures examined to identify overperforming schools included cost per pupil; average teacher salary; median house price; and salary, cost and house price per SAT point and per advanced percent in reading and math. Individual school performance ranks were aggregated by type of school and by school district with weights by number of students.