We've all seen the dozens (if not more) rankings that float around the web, evaluating private schools and boarding schools in the United States and comparing them to one another. But it seems like no two lists are the same. How can that be? It can be confusing to understand private school rankings, but let's explore some the factors considered and some of the flaws in ranking systems that can skew those results.
Factor: Surveys & Reviews
One common way that services determine the best private schools is by using surveys and reviews of schools. Sites like Niche offer listings of schools and families can rate the schools based on their experiences.
Why it works: There's no one better than current parents and students to tell you about their private school and what makes it great (or not so great), so you're likely going to get an authentic picture of what the school is like to attend. Families are often honest about both their likes and dislikes, giving you an accurate view of everything from student life and dorm living to the food and paying your bills.
Why it doesn't: A school's rating on sites like these can be dependent on how many families actually rate the school and the school's own level of involvement. Some schools will heavily campaign for their families to fill out glowing reports, meaning you're only getting the best of the best, and other schools don't pay much mind to online ratings, so you may only see review from families who are upset. If all the reviews are perfectly positive or only negative, take that with a grain of salt. While you can often get some interesting feedback on schools, these sites aren't always the best method for determining the best private schools. Some sites allow schools to dispute negative reviews, and some sites allow schools to "pay to play" meaning they can influence scores and ratings by purchasing advertisements and featuring top reviews. It's important to understand exactly how the survey or review system works and if schools can influence the results.
FINANCIALS AND FACILITIES
Some rankings will be based on a school's financial resources, like financial aid budgets and endowments.
Why it works: This information can be quite useful in understanding a school's financial stability and the amount of financial aid available to students who qualify. Schools that are committed to enrolling a student body of mixed economic backgrounds are often regarded as some of the most supportive and welcoming private schools.
Why it doesn't: Beyond financial aid, factors like endowment, annual fund, capital campaigns, and even facilities aren't necessarily indicative of a school's true nature. Wealth is not necessarily a determining factor for what a student body is like, and the community should be a top concern for families applying to private school, especially boarding schools
Admission statistics, like a private school's acceptance rate, are often used to determine a school's status.
Why it works: Acceptance rate is essentially a statistic that examines how many students a school admits as a percentage of the overall number of applications received. So, a school that has 1,000 applications for admission but only accepts 150 students would have a 15% acceptance rate. The lower the acceptance rate, the more competitive a school is considered. It's a simple statistic.
Why it doesn't: The acceptance rate statistic can often be misleading. While many private schools pride themselves on maintaining a low acceptance rate, other private schools pride themselves only encouraging the top applicants to apply. This means they engage in a process that involves the school's admission office working closely with prospective families early on in the admission process. If the admission office determines that a student is not a good candidate for admission, it is not uncommon for that family to be counseled out of the application process before they finish, meaning that they are never truly counted as a full application. Some admission directors feel that sending a middle school student - most applicants to private high school are eighth graders - a rejection letter can be devastating for the child; counseling families out before an application is completed allows for a more gradual decision to be made that a student isn't a good fit, which is often easier for children to accept rather than an abrupt rejection letter. As such, many schools accepted a large percentage of their applicants because only the strongest contenders are encouraged to complete the full admission process. If you're interested in learning about a school's acceptance rate, inquire with the director of admission about the school's philosophies and practices.
COLLEGE ACCEPTANCES AND ENROLLMENTS
Often, private schools publish their lists of colleges that their graduates are accepted to and/or attend. It's important to know if you're looking at only enrollments or the full list of acceptances, as the acceptances will give you a broader idea of where students are applying for college and getting accepted.
Why it works: Let's be honest, if you're going to invest in a private school education, you want to know that your child is going to be prepared for college. You want to see a number of top colleges on that list to show that the school has the ability to educate the best and brightest. Enrolling students at Harvard and Yale is awesome, and is an easy way to compare schools.
Why it doesn't: A school's philosophy when it comes to college counseling can affect their college lists. Some schools aim to send students to as many Ivy League schools as possible while others focus on finding the best fit college for students, regardless of reputation. Neither approach is necessarily better than the other, but families looking to determine the best private schools often look for those top names. A little known fact is that many private schools are able to gain some incredible names on their college matriculation lists because of student athletes. Some of the top schools in the nation have some of the most competitive athletics programs, and students who are strong scholars and stellar athletes can often get an edge on students who are only academically strong. Some college acceptances can also be attributed directly to postgraduates, or students who have technically graduated from high school already but returned for another year of high school before going to college. This extra year can often make students stronger candidates for college, meaning they are more likely to get into a top college or university. It's perfectly acceptable to ask the schools how many of their college enrollments are due to athletic scholarships and/or postgraduates.
In private schools, standardized tests aren't usually part of the educational curriculum, and as such are typically limited to the SSAT (for prospective students), PSAT, SAT and ACT.
Why it works: This is one of the few ways to assess students universally in private schools. SAT scores and others can be indicative of how well-prepared students are for college, making them one of the top choices by private school ranking systems to determine academic prowess in private schools.
Why it doesn't: It's not a perfect science. Much research today points to the fact that standardized tests aren't always the best way to determine a student's potential for success, which is proven by the fact that many colleges don't require them anymore. Another thing to consider when reviewing standardized test scores is that at many private schools, boarding schools in particular, students whose native language is not English are also taking these test. It's not uncommon for scores from international students to be lower than those of native English speakers, particularly on the English sections of standardized tests. This can bring down the overall average of a private school's results.
Some sites aren't terribly forthcoming with their formulas for calculations. TheBestSchools.org simply says on one of their articles featuring the 50 Best Private Day Schools that, "The rankings below have been compiled on the basis of a number of factors. In terms of academic excellence, the schools on the following list maintain a superior level of instruction, quality relationships with top-tier colleges, and additional academic awards and honors." That doesn't actually give us much information on what is being used. They go on to say that Ivy League univiersityies and colleges are a determining factor in a school's ranking, but does that actually tell you what makes the school one of the best? That same site also states that a student body's diversity is taken into consideration, but not exactly how so, and that "intangible factors" such as unique programs and facilities are also part of the mysterious algorithm used. This doesn't give me a lot of information to understand how the rankings are truly determined.
Why it works: These vague factors can actually work in your favor because a random variable can catapult a school that doesn't make one "Top 10 Best Private Schools" list to the top of another list. If you're searching a number of lists, you're bound to see some outliers and those are usually interesting schools to review.
Why it doesn't work: You won't always understand why a school has made a list (or not), and this makes it harder to assess how well a school will suit your own personal needs. While mystery can be intriguing, it can also be frustrating.
Statistics are typically considered to be the least subjective way to assess a school's success.
Why it works: You can't deny hard facts, like percentage of students who go on to college, student to teacher ratios, and class sizes. It's an easy way to make comparisons of schools.
Why it doesn't: Many school rankings are actually based on old information, so a ranking system that is published in 2017 might be based on data that's old, five years old for some rankings. These stats might give you a great idea of what the school was like a few years ago, but could be hiding some important updates regarding how the school is functioning today.
What's the verdict?
When it comes to private school rankings, the best way to determine if a school is truly one of the best private schools out there is to decide for yourself. It's fun to read the top boarding schools lists, but remember to do your research and thoroughly assess the schools yourself. Check out this Private School Search Spreadsheet that can help you better organize your search and help you decide that is the best private school for you.