Are Niche school rankings accurate?

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DSC_0117How Niche Works

The Niche website features A-F rankings for K-12 schools, colleges, and neighborhoods or districts to help the user “find [their] Niche.” These rankings are based on “insight and analysis from ‘everyday’ experts” (Official Niche Website). The site also provides regional and national levels of comparison for each school.

The site bases each school’s grade off of three primary factors. For the high schools, Niche rankings are determined 60 percent by an academic grade, 30 percent by a diversity grade, and 10 percent by a Niche user survey.

According to the current rankings, JHS earned a B overall, Jesuit scored a B in academics, a B- in student culture and diversity, and a 4.4 out of 5 average in parent and student surveys.

Because the site emphasizes the importance of “everyday experts”, Niche student and parent users heavily contribute to every aspect of a school’s grade by offering anonymous praise or criticism on each facet of the school through survey response questions and polls. However, to ensure accuracy, the site filters all ratings and removes any obvious outliers (Official Niche Website).

For example, one supposed Jesuit user gave the school a 4 out of 5 in academics: “The academics are very good but very challenging so students are overworked, which is not healthy” (Official Niche Website). Students can also comment on diversity, sports, food, administration and policies, and educational outcomes.

Information provided by users also helps the site formulate statistics intended to inform both the user and the overall grade, including average student GPA, average SAT and ACT scores, and gender ratios.

User formulated responses and statistics are then weighted along with information “obtained from the U.S. Department of Education” to establish a school’s rank (Official Niche Website).
Niche’s Limitations

On the surface, Niche appears to offer accurate school rankings evenly balanced between hard facts and student experience. However, closer inspection brings the ranking system’s credibility into question.

The main issue lies in the site’s dependency on student responses in surveys and polls to formulate their statistics. Often, there are only 8-10 responses for any poll or survey question, forcing the site to amass statistics and averages from a minuscule demographic that doesn’t necessarily represent a majority of the school. As a result, the site is prone to create undeveloped school rankings.

For example, the site states that Jesuit’s gender ratio is 75 percent male 25 percent female, a sample of data “aggregated from Niche users” (Official Niche Website). This is a far cry from the school’s actual 48 percent male 52 percent female gender ratio (Official Jesuit Academic Files).
Interpreting rankings
Admissions Director Erin DeKlotz also finds any ranking system limited in its ability to rate schools, and she advises students and parents to keep the same mindset.

“That’s my message: Always read the fine print, and don’t take these things too seriously,” DeKlotz said.

When considering the fine print, DeKlotz is wary of how Niche in particular weighs each of the three factors which contribute to an overall grade.

“I believe that OES, for example, benefitted in this Niche ranking from the 30 percent ‘diversity’ component since they have such a large population of international students,” DeKlotz said. “On paper, they probably seem more diverse than any other high school in the area because of this fact. This kind of diversity is different than the diversity that you would find at… a school where all the students come from local neighborhoods, not from overseas. These are the kinds of things that are important to take into consideration when reading rankings like these.”

By failing to tell users upfront how they formulate their rankings, the site creates room for misinterpretation and misguided conclusions about the standing of one school compared to another.
Experience over rank

But for freshman Archita Harathi, these types of numbers aren’t important – regardless of whether they are accurate or not. She and her parents decided on Jesuit based on the experiences of her older brother, a 2011 graduate.

“The high school is definitely more important than the rank,” Harathi said. “The rankings are only there to help you narrow down your choices, and once you select a school, only you can decide whether or not that high school is meant for you.”

In her admissions work, Mrs. DeKlotz finds that Harathi’s approach mimics that of most prospective students and their families. Those eighth graders and their parents who have visited and toured the school are not usually swayed one way or the other by rankings, as such reviews cannot rate those aspects of Jesuit that make the school unique.

“It is important to note that the Niche survey does not cover what most students and families say they value the most about Jesuit: the community,” DeKlotz said. “Programs like Campus ministry and Christian Service, which make Jesuit different from all the other schools on the list, are not factored into these rankings.”

However, for families who have no experience with the school community, a ranking might play a larger role in their decision to look at Jesuit. Numbers and letters have a greater overall affect – negative or positive – on those students who don’t have a personal connection to Jesuit or any of its students.

In terms of college acceptances, senior Grant Hjelte perceives a larger importance of the high school ranking system. As he sends out his college applications, Hjelte observes the affect that a ranking could have on Jesuit’s and therefore his public face.

“When a college is looking at something, they only know you from your application and through other sources they can find out either about you or your school,” Hjelte said, “so to have a source like this that’s putting out information – it could sway a college’s decision.”

All three say that school rankings and statistics on any level – high school or college – cannot determine the type of experience that a student will have at a given school. Ratings, they agree, are just one small aspect of a school, and should only supplement personal opinion.

“You can read about stats, and you could read about SAT scores and see how many AP classes a school has… knowing those things is important, but that’s like looking at an elephant through a straw,” said DeKlotz. “That’s one thing about a school. When you want to choose a school … you want to think about the whole elephant, the whole experience.”