Niche Article

Niche, a popular school and neighborhood ranking system, updated its rankings for private schools. Harvard-Westlake (HW) was ranked sixth-best private school in America for the 2019-20 school year, dropping four places in the ranking, after a second-place rating in 2018-19.

Niche ranks schools using a report card system that gives letter grades for different aspects of a school. The only change in the HW report card was the diversity grade, which dropped from an “A+” to an “A”.

However, school data on diversity and successful efforts to make Harvard-Westlake a more inclusive and equitable environment suggest that this score might not be accurate.

Associate Director of Admissions and Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Janine Jones stated that she wasn’t sure why Niche dropped the score, considering that Harvard-Westlake has seen an upward trend in diversity that continued into this year.

“Our diversity score actually went up, so I’m not sure why the score dropped. You know it’s interesting because we, since I’ve been working here, and this is my third year in this position, my fifth year at the school, our diversity ranking has gone from like a B- all the way up to this A,” Jones said.

Spectrum contacted Niche for information about how their algorithm works, but they did not respond before this article was printed.

Head of Harvard-Westlake Communications Ari Engelberg suggested that the disparity in scores and data could result from outdated data being used by Niche.

“If you look in the footnotes of Niche, they have a little section on how our score is calculated and for the diversity ranking they’re pulling mostly from data that’s provided to the federal government and that data is actually a few years old,” Engelberg said. “I couldn’t figure out where they actually got that data because no one at HW seems to remember being part of submitting and gathering that data and submitting it to the government.”

The Niche website indicates that data is typically updated through Niche by users and mentioned that, since private schools are not required to report to the Department of Education, most data sourced from the Department of Education can also be updated directly by private schools via their Niche Partner Accounts.

Engelberg stated that when so many schools are being ranked, any small change to the Niche.com algorithm can lead to a drop or a gain. “It’s some sort of algorithm that they’re using and so it’s not terribly subtle and it’s going to be prone to error or it’s going to be prone to using old data.”

A large factor in Niche’s algorithm is user survey responses, which can either poorly reflect the school environment or be misinterpreted in Niche’s algorithm. Niche has no verification system to see if someone submitting a review or survey response is actually a member of the school community. 30% of the “Best Schools” algorithm’s weight is SAT and ACT composite scores, which are self-reported by students who use Niche and not the entire student population. Reviews might also be analyzed using a computerized system that could be inaccurate in understanding their content.

“They’re probably using artificial intelligence to look at whether reviews are offering positive or negative sentiment about the school and I think that’s simply inadequate. I would say that every school has a unique culture and every unique culture is going to be suited to a different type of student. And what makes a great school is it’s a great fit for you as a student.”

Engelberg said.WEIRD PLACEMENT

Head of the Middle School Jon Wimbish echoed Engelberg’s thoughts about the inability for an algorithm to determine whether or not HW is the right school for a prospective student. “As far as I know, Niche or anyone from Niche has never been to our campus, has never spent time here, has never sent a child here, had an experience anything other than what I would imagine is kind of looking at numbers. And I would imagine that the numbers would be something like graduation rate and test scores…Those are things that don’t define us, nor should they,” Wimbish said.

Engelberg added that, “If there were a consistent downward trend, that would be something that we would want to look at and understand how Niche is scoring schools because we don’t believe that Harvard-Westlake is experiencing a consistent downward trend in the quality of its student body or in the quality of its program.”

Wimbish added that Niche rankings do not influence HW’s decisions or changes to school programs and the environment.

“We have never once talked about our ranking, it’s not something we pay attention to…I’m much more interested in the school being the best school it can be for you and your family, not on some national scale,” Wimbish said.

He mentioned that the drop in HW’s diversity score doesn’t reflect school efforts to become a more diverse and equitable environment.

“I know the efforts that we’re making to hire a more diverse faculty, I mean I personally know that. I know the efforts we’re making to bring in a diverse student body and I believe we’re doing well in diversifying both of those populations,” Wimbish said.

Despite potential inaccuracies in Niche’s evaluation of schools, Engelberg said that Niche’s rankings page ends up getting a lot of traffic. “My sense is that it’s actually paid attention to quite a bit. In the last several years Niche, in particular, has grown in prominence.” Engelberg said. He added that increased traffic USE A DIFFERENT WORD to Niche takes away traffic to school websites.

Engelberg said that Niche’s data might not reflect the HW culture that students, teachers and parents experience, stating that, “Every school has a unique culture and I think that what’s unique about Harvard-Westlake is how creative and ambitious and hardworking and conscientious and intellectually curious the students and the faculty are.”

Claire and Will, this article is very interesting and relevant to the Harvard Westlake community and I think a lot of people would be eager to read this. It gets a little repetitive at points and there is definitely an overload of quotes that may make it seem like you are not pulling your weight. Other than that it is very engaging and I will be happy to see it in the Spectrum.

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