Aspen High School students in the hallway.
Aspen High School students in the hallway. Credit: Christina Capasso / Aspen Journalism

ASPEN – Again, Aspen High School has been ranked highly in two nationwide surveys of public high schools.

Both Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report have released their 2015 rankings of roughly 20,000 schools around the nation. U.S. News named Aspen sixth in the state and 214th in the country. Of the nine Colorado schools that made Newsweek’s list, Aspen High was seventh among them and 398th in the nation.

John Maloy, Aspen School District’s superintendent, welcomed the recognition as one more sign of the high school’s outstanding teachers and students. He also mentioned the school’s supportive parents and community partners including voters, who approve the extra sales taxes and property taxes that support local schools.

“This means our school community can be proud of the work being done within the school walls on a daily basis,” Maloy said.

Of course, there was a time — 2012, specifically — when Aspen High was No. 1 in the state and 59th in the country, according to U.S. News. Even now, the home page of the high school’s website still claims “Ranked No. 1 in Colorado.” One could argue that the school’s performance has slipped in the intervening years, but Maloy doesn’t see it that way.

“It’s a moving target, and we don’t set out to find out the methodology of these organizations,” said the superintendent. “When we were ranked No. 1 in the state by U.S. News and World Report, we actually didn’t place highly in the Newsweek rankings.”

Every year, the schools in the rankings have different teachers and students. The news magazines also change their ranking methodologies. The one constant in the nationwide rankings is that the news organizations use data collected by state education departments in order to make apples-to-apples comparisons between schools. Of course, the numbers reported by the schools — whether test scores or socioeconomic data — vary every year.

In 2015, both Newsweek and U.S. News relied first on standardized testing scores (from earlier years) to see how kids from each school performed on math and reading assessments and how they compared to their peers in other jurisdictions. Beyond that assessment data, both news organizations looked at “college readiness,” which includes measures such as graduation rates, college enrollment rates and performance on both college entrance exams and Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses.

This year, Newsweek actually split its results into two rankings. One, the “Best High Schools,” was purely performance-based. The second, “Beating the Odds,” was controlled for student poverty rates and designed to spotlight schools performing well in disadvantaged communities. Understandably, given Aspen’s socioeconomic characteristics, Aspen High ranked highly in the first list but didn’t appear on the second. Maloy said Aspen’s predominantly white and higher-income demographics certainly play a role in its academic success.

“The research supports that — the higher socioeconomic status of a community, the greater likelihood that the students will be successful,” he said.

Aspen school officials track the performance of several other Colorado “match schools” with similar demographics. Sometimes these comparisons reflect favorably on Aspen High and sometimes they don’t. In the U.S. News rankings, Cherry Creek High School near Denver came in 14th in the state, and Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado Springs came in 20th. Steamboat Springs High, also a match school, was 34th.

Of 448 high schools in Colorado, U.S. News gave rankings to 119. Basalt High School came in 36th in the state and 1,459th in the country on the U.S. News list, the only high school in the Roaring Fork School District to receive a ranking.

Maloy said the nationwide rankings are a welcome compliment for any school to receive, but they’re also a narrow view of a school’s overall quality.

“There are a lot of pieces missing (from the nationwide rankings),” Maloy said. “Our own assessments are really the most important thing for us.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and The Aspen Times are collaborating on schools coverage. The Times published this story on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2015.