Federal and Nevada state officials are taking responsibility for data errors that mistakenly launched a suburban Las Vegas high school nearly to the top of U.S. News and World Report's "Best High Schools" list.
The skewed enrollment numbers, which landed Green Valley High School in Henderson at No. 13 on the national rankings released Tuesday, came after a data error at the state education office was not caught by two levels of U.S. Department of Education fact-checking.
"We're sorry for any embarrassment it caused the school," said Marilyn Seastrom, the chief statistician for the education department's National Center for Education Statistics, which collects the data that U.S. News and World Report uses to generate its rankings.
Green Valley Principal Jeff Horn was the first to notice the too-good-to-be-true ranking, as first reported by the Las Vegas Sun.
"I know we do some great things at our school," Horn told The Associated Press on Tuesday, adding that the school has an "amazing performing arts program" and once won a similar award from Newsweek, although it had never broken the prestigious top 100.
"It was pretty cool to hear that news, but the information it was based on was incorrect," he said.
The online rankings show Green Valley has 477 students to 111 teachers, an impressive 4:1 student-teacher ratio that was far from the actual 2,850-student population and 24:1 ratio at the school. Coupled with numbers that showed the school has a 100 percent passing rate on the Advanced Placement exam, and Green Valley was rocketed into the company of elite prep schools and science academies on the list.
Nevada Department of Education official Julian Montoya said Thursday that a database administrator, who no longer works with the department, originally submitted the correct data to the federal office but submitted the wrong file during a revision process.
"In the process of correcting one error, we created a few more," Montoya said.
Six schools in southern Nevada's Clark County now have radically skewed enrollment numbers in the federal database, although only Green Valley made it on the top 100 list.
Seastrom said federal education officials are looking into a glitch that didn't catch the skewed data the first time around. She said a second layer of fact checking was skipped because the office was in a rush to finish processing the data.
The Green Valley mix-up was the first time a National Center for Education Statistics error came to light in such a public forum, Seastrom said, and her office is taking several steps to fix the system as a result. They're also reviewing each of the 100 schools on U.S. News' list to see whether bad data is behind any of those awards.
Montoya said his office has changed its methods since early 2010, when the mistake happened, and is focusing on ramping up "data integrity."
"Unfortunately, stuff like this has to happen so it wakes people up," he said. "Now we know we have to tighten stuff up."
U.S. News still had Green Valley listed at No. 13 on its website Thursday. The publication's director of data research, Robert Morse, declined to say whether the rankings would be changed.
But he did say the publication would be looking into the quality of the federal data in the future.