Lake Forest High School is the 37th best school in the country, according to Newsweek’s most recent annual “America’s Top High School” list. What does that mean?
The only Illinois schools to rank higher than LFHS are New Trier (17), Hinsdale Central (34), and Northside Prep, a selective enrollment school on Chicago’s northwest side. For a lot of us at LFHS, this high ranking may not come as a surprise, but it also poses an important question: What makes these high schools qualify as among the best in the country? And how accurate is the methodology behind the list?
First off, it’s important to note that Newsweek curates two high school rankings each year, one “absolute” list and one “relative” list. According to its website, Newsweek does this to “demonstrate the consequence of accounting for non-school factors on school rankings.”
The absolute list ranks schools solely on achievement and college-readiness indicators. The relative list ranks the highest-performing schools after accounting for student poverty levels and access to learning opportunities. The differentiation reveals how the rankings vary when non-school factors are considered.
An important question must be considered: is the school that is No. 1 on the “relative” list the true “top high school”? Or is academic achievement and college readiness more important than raising the ceiling for students with a less successful educational climate?
Lake Forest is on the absolute list, which is mainly determined by a school’s average ACT/SAT scores, average AP test scores, and graduation rate. In these categories, our scores are, as you would have guessed, quite impressive. With an average ACT score of 27, a graduation rate of 99.0%, and average AP test scores of 93%, it’s understandable, but still a bit staggering, how we measure up with the rest of the country. In fact, No. 37 in the country is quite the accolade. These scores certainly say great things about LFHS subjectively, but it is also unfair to determine the quality of a school based solely on statistics.
One issue with this ranking is including the ACT/SAT score as its main criteria, which not a direct reflection of what the school has taught us. For most students at LFHS, the months leading up to ACT/SAT are spent with tutors and resources both inside and outside of the school. Many students use practice books and tutors as their main means of preparing for these intimidating standardized tests. LFHS now provides an ACT/SAT preparation class, but outside tutors are still a more popular choice. Personally, I would have not been prepared going into the ACT had my mom not hired a tutor who gave me practice workbooks, strategies to use, and even homework to prepare. This is not to say that LFHS’ weekend ACT/SAT prep courses are not helpful. I’m quite sure they are. I, however, was unable to attend them. Without additional outside help, Lake Forest’s test scores could still measure up with the highest-achieving high schools based on the readiness provided in its curriculum and course work, but additional preparation certainly affects the outcome of our overall average performance.
When it comes to the AP test scores, this is another subjective category because it only represents the population of students who take AP classes. Granted, this is a significant portion of LFHS students, but it does not represent the achievements of students who do not take the AP tests. At LFHS, access is to AP coursework is fairly lenient, which could also send the results askew. For example, seniors can opt to enroll in AP Psych regardless of prerequisite courses taken in their junior year. As a junior, courses like AP-US History, AP-Language, AP-Environmental Studies, AP-Biology, and AP-Research have no deterrents other than students’ own ambition. In other schools, a teacher recommendation, a prerequisite course grade, or many other hurdles might be in the way of a student enrolling in AP coursework.
Having more students enrolled in AP classes could move a high school higher on “top schools” lists if they measure the total enrollment of AP students as an indicator of success. Or, On the contrary, if a school only allows students who are certifiably proven to be “ready” for AP coursework access to that curriculum, their scores, one could assume, would be higher, thus leading to a higher ranking.
As for perhaps our school’s flagship statistic, graduation rate, there is definitely an unspoken expectation to graduate at Lake Forest and attend a four-year college or university. For some areas around the country, it is not the norm to graduate high school, nor to attend a four-year university afterward. Rather, students from other socioeconomic climates are required to earn financial independence via a trade, or earn money to support their family through working and attending a community college that is affordable part-time. Here, though, regardless of whether it is explicitly stated, it is expected to attend college due to the abundance of opportunities that we have grown up with. Most of us grow up not even questioning the idea of graduating and attending college – it is simply just one of our many rites of passage. The will to succeed and the desire to pursue excellence are ideals that have been instilled in our minds since our earliest days of schooling. If you ask a Lake Forest High School parents what their reaction would be if their student decided not to attend college, they might candidly–depending on the parent, household, socioeconomic status, and many other factors–meet this hypothetical situation with trepidation.
This isn’t to say that a Lake Forest High School education is not a great one, or one that should be taken for granted, because it is, in fact, a fantastic education, on par with the country’s highest achieving schools. I am grateful for all the wonderful classes I have taken, like Environmental Studies, where I was challenged to embrace, understand, and interact appropriately (not parasitically) with the world around me; I am grateful for educators I have met that have impacted my life, like Mrs. Flangel, who always saw my potential as a student in her class and pushed me to raise the expectations I had for myself. We can all attest to LFHS affording us with unbelievable opportunities, whether they be academic, service-based, or social, but I believe it’s important to not get caught up in the rankings. Ranking #37 nationally is impressive, yes, but it represents little of the value that we actually receive from attending LFHS. From another perspective, if we see our rank as constantly residing in the shadow of New Trier and Hinsdale Central, our confidence and productivity as a school will be crippled. Similarly, if Libertyville or Loyola Academy only measure themselves against Lake Forest, which I am almost certain that they don’t, their own worth and pride as a school wanes.
The measure of a good high school is much more than what can be quantified through scores and statistics. What the ranking does not measure is the quality of character of LFHS students, the passion of the teachers, and the overall positive experience of attending LFHS for four years in the most transformational stage of your life. Personally, I have been impacted quite positively by my experience here and therefore to me, Lake Forest High School will always be No. 1.
Faith Fietsam is a senior at Lake Forest High School and staff writer for The Forest Scout.