December 14th, 2007 13:21 EST
Best U.S. High Schools Travel Different Roads to Academic Success
Highly ranked schools "open worlds of opportunity," magazine says
Washington -- In ranking the 100 best public high schools in the United States, the magazine U.S. News and World Report found a common denominator in their unwavering commitment to excellence -- but widely divergent ways in which they achieved their outstanding results in the classroom.
The top-ranked school, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, an elite, highly selective school in suburban Virginia outside Washington, was hardly a surprising choice.
In one physics class, for example, students are designing an Earth-orbiting satellite in cooperation with local high-tech firms, while other students choose course offerings from DNA science to artificial intelligence.
If the stress level is high at Thomas Jefferson, so is the commitment to learning. "We're passionate and we work harder," says senior Alexis Brown. Or as another student bluntly told U.S. News and World Report, "You fail or you figure it out."
But the magazine also awarded high rankings to many unexpected schools, with very different student bodies and without the high-powered elite status of Thomas Jefferson.
Take Hildago High School, located on the Texas-Mexico border, where students are Hispanic and the poverty rate hovers close to 40 percent. Nevertheless, the graduation rate at Hidalgo is 94 percent, according to the magazine, and every student takes two demanding Advanced Placement (AP) courses designed for college-bound students.
"We never use poverty as an excuse," says Hidalgo's principal, Edward Blaha.
With the help of a major foundation grant from Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Hidalgo has been able to enrich its academic offerings by establishing partnerships with local colleges as well as the University of Texas.
Another school that contradicts the image that only elite schools score top rankings is Ronald E. McNair Academic High School in Jersey City, New Jersey, one of the poorest communities in the state.
McNair, named for an astronaut killed in the 1986 explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger, attempts to maintain a diverse student body that is roughly 25 percent white, 25 percent African American and 25 percent Hispanic, with the remaining students from other ethnic groups, notably Asian.
McNair does not make any concessions when it comes to academics. The school offers a daunting list of AP courses, requires 50 hours of community service to graduate and enforces a strict dress code that makes no concessions to inner-city fashions.
"I tell them that we have set the bar high," former principal Robert Roggenstein said to New Jersey Monthly magazine.
McNair consistently ranks as the top public high school in the state, and virtually all its students go on to college, including to some of the most prestigious institutions in the United States. In 2006, McNair students collectively were awarded $200,000 in scholarships.
Working with a data analysis and research firm, U.S. News and World Report employed a three-part process to evaluate many of the more than 18,000 high schools across the country. The magazine released its results November 29.
The first step was to measure how students scored on standardized state academic tests. Next, they evaluated how each school's minority and disadvantaged students performed, and finally they determined the school's success in providing challenging, college-level work.
As the magazine concluded, "A good high school can open worlds of opportunity for its students."
There may be little dispute that all the rated schools are outstanding in some respects, but the whole issue of ranking public high schools has its critics.
Educational psychologist Gerald Bracey points out that such comparisons inevitably focus on a narrow set of factors like test scores. "I don't think we should be ranking the schools at all," Bracey said to the Washington Post. "I just think it's unhealthy."
Other experts point out that elite schools like Thomas Jefferson should be in a special category and not compete with public high schools that draw from a more general population.
On the other hand, veteran Washington Post education writer Jay Matthews says that rankings, based on college-level testing, are "the only available comparative factor that allows parents to see how much value schools are adding to their children's lives."
AP AND IB
Advanced Placement is the most widely used type of college-preparation courses in American public high schools. AP, administered by the College Board, comprises 5,200 schools, colleges and other education organizations.
Through AP, the College Board develops strenuous, college-level courses in more than 30 subjects that students can take in secondary school. Students earn academic credits for college in the United States and 40 other countries -- provided they score high enough on AP tests given in their junior and senior years.
More than 60 percent of American high schools offer AP courses, according to the Department of Education. In 2006, more than 24 percent of all U.S. high school students took AP exams, up from 16 percent in 2000.
A second type of academic program, growing in popularity, is the International Baccalaureate (IB), administered by the International Baccalaureate Organization in Switzerland.
The organization works with more than 2,000 schools in 125 countries, including almost 800 in the United States. Students follow a rigorous curriculum in six academic areas: English, foreign language, science, mathematics and social science. They also must perform 200 hours of community service, plus independent research for a 4,000-word essay.
Like AP, IB courses demand hard work and commitment from their students. A college student who graduated from the IB program at Troy High School in Fullerton, California, observed, " If you can make it through, then college will be a breeze .... Still, Troy definitely isn't for everyone. Troy is a school for those extremely motivated students."
The U.S. News and World Report ranking of high schools is available on its Web site.
For more information, see Study in the U.S./Education and a listing of education resources on USINFO.