Criteria Make the Difference

I am a parent of a student at Watkins Mill High School.  I am also the president of the Watkins Mill PTSA this year, my second year in a row.

And I just discovered that on the U.S. News & World Report national ranking system, Watkins Mill High School shows up dead last in high schools in Montgomery County (#26 out of 26).

I was shocked.  I would expect the worst high school in Montgomery County to be riddled with conflict, drowning in security issues, a staff all itching to leave, and unmotivated and disillusioned students.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Then I looked at the criterion they use to determine the rating: college readiness, college curriculum breadth, state assessment proficiency, state assessment performance, and graduation rate.

Oh.  Now I understand why Watkins Mill is ranked lowest.  When the only metric is how well one does on a test, how could a student body 62% of which is ‘economically disadvantaged’ possibly compete?  Many are still learning English.  A majority of that 62% are immigrant families who have suffered trauma, family breakups, legal burdens, poor health, and a whole host of issues brought on by the process of immigration itself.  A signicant number have no family role models for going to college.  This school is being judged on the same criteria as a Walt Whitman?  It’s apples and oranges.  No comparison.

It’s curious how when a high school junior or senior looks at colleges to attend, as my own daughter has had the privilege of doing, the criteria are many: location, faculty accomplishments, food, engagement with city or surroundings, extra-curricular opportunities, party scene, how many get jobs upon graduation, how much they make in their first year – a diverse and thorough list of criteria.  But high school: just grades and college entrance.  Nothing more.

Which is sad because there is so much more to high school.  And if other factors were considered, Watkins Mill would shine:

  1. SECURITY.  Lowest # of calls for law enforcement of any high school in Gaithersburg/Germantown (
  2. WELLNESS CENTER. Services include sports physicals, comprehensive physical exams, immunizations, lab services, confidential health counseling, health education, assistance with health insurance and community health care resources and case management. The health services team includes a nurse practitioner, pediatrician, registered nurse, mental health counselor, youth development counselors, and certified nursing assistants. The Watkins Mill High School Wellness Center is open Monday through Friday from 8:00am until 6:00pm.
  3. LEARNING LAB. When the elite of Montgomery County go off to great colleges and universities, they will be called upon to address the great social issues of the day: immigration, affordable housing, food insecurity, the impact of poverty on education, joblessness, etc.  They can read about it in their textbooks.  But at Watkins Mill, students get first-hand, on-site training.  They don’t hear about it from a lecturer but rather from a good friend.
  4. RESPECT.  An asst. principal at Watkins Mill told me that in no other high school have they ever received the respect they get from students here.  I have seen this first-hand: they treat adults like, well, authority figures, and give them the deference they are due.
  5. BUILDING.  Watkins Mill has a beautiful building, well laid-out, well-lit, very functional, with lots of excellent facilities.  I would love to work there!

I could go on: extraordinary teachers, great morale, according to my daughter no cliques or tensions between different groups in the school – students actually get along with each other! – an excellent administration.   Both my daughter and I are so glad to be at Watkins Mill!

So I guess I don’t disagree with the U.S. News ranking: according to its narrow criteria, sure, we’re in last place.  But shouldn’t a school be judged by more than just state assessments and college entrance rates?  Surely there’s more to high school than these!  If a rating system had a breadth of factors by which it judged a school, Watkins Mill and I’m sure some other schools in this county, and across the country, might get the credit they deserve.


  1. kerine says

    Wow, that’s shocking to know that Watkins Mill is last in the county of high schools!! Wow I’m kind of disappointed with that ranking. But as you said, ranking a school should be more than just assessments and college entrance rates. I just feel like society and Those who are in charge I’ll put down schools because of the demographics, social status and financial status. I just had an interview with a teacher, surprisingly talking about the same issue– that everything is based on assessments and continuous assessments these days not just for high schools, but elementary school and middle schools. The teacher mentioned that it puts a damper on students learning and also teachers teaching! She also told me she felt like her hands were tied, because she always had to assess the students and it didn’t give her room to be creative and to just Be innovative and have fun It became more serious ever since certain loss came into place. It’s really sad and we need to wake up and smell the coffee and realize what’s happening and sometimes we can hold the students back instead of pushing them forward with all these assessments!!

    • Norm Gordon says

      Thank you, Kerine! You make a good point: excessive assessment wears out teachers as well as students! There is certainly a place for metrics. But it should be ONE piece of a whole. Thanks for your comments!

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