The Universal Notebook: Maine’s best high school is …

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For the second straight year, U.S. News & World Report named Greely High School in Cumberland the best high school in Maine. My guess is that no one from U.S. News has ever been to Cumberland.

Don’t get me wrong. Greely would be in my Top 10, but probably not ahead of Cape Elizabeth, Falmouth, and Yarmouth. Just how meaningful school rankings are, of course, is highly questionable.

The U.S. News rankings went Greely, Kennebunk, Falmouth, Cape Elizabeth, Baxter Academy in Portland, South Aroostook, Belfast, Madawaska, Camden Hills, Easton.

Anyone who lives in Maine knows that can’t be right. Easton? Where’s that? And can it possibly be better than Brunswick at No. 12, Mount Desert Island at No. 18, South Portland at No. 24, Gorham at No. 29, and Portland High at No. 32?

Public School Review does a better job of ranking high schools. Their Top 10 are Maine School of Science and Math, Falmouth, Cape Elizabeth, Greely, Yarmouth, York, Kennebunk, Scarborough, Camden Hills, Marshwood, and Baxter. Sounds about right.

Another rating site called Niche also had the math-science magnet school first followed by Yarmouth, Cape, Falmouth, Scarborough, Camden Hills, Greely, Brunswick, Orono, and, surprise, Portland’s Casco Bay High School. 

Folks looking for real estate in Maine frequently turn to the Great Schools website to guide them to good public education, but Great Schools just assigns schools a 1-10 rating. Cape gets the only 10 in Maine, Deer Isle-Stonington and Rangeley a 9, Hermon and Ashland an 8, Gorham and Lisbon a 7, Greely and Brunswick a 6, Windham and Gray-New Gloucester a 5, Deering and Biddeford a 4, Portland and Bangor a 3, Old Town and Westbrook (my alma mater) a 2, and Lewiston High and Edward Little a 1.

While they claim to compute a wide array of data from Advanced Placement tests and SAT scores to graduation rates, all school rating services are suspect. Some are more accurate than others, but ranking schools is a chump’s game, as is ranking students.

What good does it do for a kid to know he’s No. 5 out of 222 in his graduating class (as I was)? And how does it help a kid who was No. 111 (as was my much smarter best friend) to know he was middle of the pack? And why saddle a kid with knowing he was No. 222? That’s why most good schools stopped keeping class ranks years ago.

I was, therefore, very proud of my youngest daughter back in 2009 when she declined to wear a National Honor Society stole at graduation.

“School was easy for me,” she explained. “Lots of kids who didn’t make the honor roll worked a lot harder than I did.”

Just so school rankings. All you really need to know about the top-ranked high schools in Maine is that they tend to be in lily-white suburbs where professionals live. The best indicator of academic performance is whose kids attend a school. But good luck if diversity matters to you: Greely, Falmouth, Yarmouth, and Cape are all more than 90 percent white; Portland High is only 63 percent white, Lewiston High 61 percent.

So I shouldn’t make fun of little Easton Junior/Senior High School up in rural Aroostook County. The fact that it scored so well in the U.S. News ratings probably had to do with its 100 percent graduation rate. But it is also notable that 35 percent of Easton students are considered economically disadvantaged and 7 percent are Native Americans.

My guess is they probably work a lot harder than students at Greely.

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing The Universal Notebook weekly since 2003, first for The Forecaster and now for the Phoenix. He also writes the Art Seen feature.