Ranting and Ranking

It’s been a while since I last wrote anything here, but I’ve decided to jot down some thoughts about a question I received from parents of a prospective student a few days ago. Why, they asked, was our school not ranked high on a website that someone had showed them. I was actually glad that they asked me the question, because I had a lot to say on the matter.  In fact, 2 weeks ago when I stumbled across the website in question (niche.com) I was so taken aback by the misleading (that’s being generous) nature of their system for ranking schools, that I decided to send a letter to our parent body alerting them to the site’s problems. But then I resisted sending out the email, figuring that it might look defensive and that it would be probably be smarter to just ignore it. Well, when these parents came to my office and raised the question, I figured it would make sense to share my thoughts on this blog, rather than in an official communication from my school.  Here’s the substantive part of the letter I considered sending to the parents and students of the school. My purpose in sharing this is to encourage people to be discerning consumers of information and to resist the simplistic reduction of superficial systems of rankings:

Last week, a parent showed me a website (niche.com) that ranked high schools. I was surprised to see what seemed like a very odd assortment of schools ranked in a very odd order. A couple of days later I received an email from an account executive at this website asking if our school would be willing to pay a $4,000 annual fee for a premium profile on their site.

There are three basic reasons why I am avoiding this site and suggesting that you also avoid registering with them or sharing your personal information:

  • I don’t think that sites which rank schools should make money off of those schools. It just doesn’t smell right.
  • The method by which they rank schools is based almost exclusively on self reported, unverified data collected from anyone who registers on their website. When I asked the account executive from niche.com whether it is possible for suporters or critics of a particular school to  either inflate or lower  a school’s ranking by registering multiple times under multiple email addresses and skewing the data, she replied that while it is possible, the site uses algorthims that are meant to adjust for that possibility. I did not find this convincing.
  • The site’s system of ranking is based on extraordinarily small sample sizes which make all the results of the rankings suspect. When I pointed this out to the account executive at niche.com, she responded that, “Niche is very transparent in terms of displaying the number of responses that make up a particular score or value when it incorporates self-reported data.” I don’t think that they are as transparent as they should be, but indeed if you look carefully you can see on their website how many self-reported responses are used for each school to compile a certain ranking. As I write this email, the school that is ranked as the number 1 Jewish school in the country is listed as having had 7 responses contributing data about it! Don’t get me wrong, I am certain that the school is terrific, but assigning a ranking based on seven responses is silly at best and misleading at worst.