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Posted at 11:05 AM ET, 12/11/2009

Oh joy: Thomas Jefferson tops all other high schools--again

By Valerie Strauss

Here we go again: Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va., sits atop yet another list of the nation’s best high schools.

This is, in fact, the third year in a row that U.S. News & World Report has determined that Thomas Jefferson is the best high school in America, based on a process the magazine concocted. It is essentially derived from standardized test scores of various kinds for different populations of students.

As if test scores alone determine the quality of a school. Sigh.

There is no question that Thomas Jefferson is a standout school. It has top-flight programs in math, science, technology, the humanities, arts and social sciences, and to top that off, wins a fair number of sports titles too. Kids endure a tough process to gain admission to the magnet public school in Fairfax County.

But the very best in America? There isn’t a school that is just as good? And, besides, as I’ve posited before, for whom is it the best? The best for competitors in the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search? The best for math whizzes?

The magazine says it looked at 21,786 public high schools in 48 states and Washington D.C. Schools in Oklahoma and Nebraska were not eligible because the magazine said there wasn’t enough data to complete a statewide analysis.

Perhaps U.S. News should have said that Thomas Jefferson was the best school in 48 states.

California had the largest number of schools that earned recognition, 110, followed by New York’s 53 and Texas’s 50.

To be fair, the methodology for the high school list makes somewhat more sense than the one U.S News uses for its college rankings.

The biggest factor in the college rankings formula is a subjective measure in which top college officials are asked to give their opinions of other schools’ reputations. No kidding.

For the high school ranking, math and reading standardized test scores in each state are used to determine the number of students in each school who do better than the average student.

But each state has its own assessments and its own grading scheme. Besides, average test scores don’t tell us how good a school is, but rather about the family income and education of the students’ parents.

Kids who come from wealthier, well-educated families generally perform better on standardized tests than kids from poor and poorly educated families.

I’ve written before about other lists of “best” high schools. My esteemed colleague Jay Mathews does an annual Challenge Index, which used to be published in The Washington Post and is now published by Newsweek.

He rates and ranks schools by a single number--the college-level test participation rate, calculated by dividing the number of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or Cambridge tests—college-level exams given in high school—by the number of graduating seniors.

Jay says this is the best way to show how well schools are challenging their students. His results are different from the U.S. News rankings.

Forbes magazine does its own rankings too, and there may be others as well.
It gets tiring having to repeat this, but it is worth repeating: No school is “best” for all students because students aren’t all the same.

What makes a school successful is how well it meets the needs, abilities and interests of each student.

Thomas Jefferson would probably not be the “best” choice, for example, for someone who is intent on becoming a musician. It might not be the “best” choice for a brilliant writer who can’t reason out a geometric proof, or for someone who wants to spend high school reading as much literature as possible. Nor would it be right for kids with learning disabilities or anxiety issues.

I’m sure that U.S. News thought it was doing a real service with its list, and did not in any way compile it to satisfy the American fascination with “best of” lists in order to sell a lot of magazines.

I’m sure of it.

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By Valerie Strauss  | December 11, 2009; 11:05 AM ET
Categories:  High School  | Tags:  high school rankings  
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As much as a non-fan I am of Mr. Matthews' list, this list is even worse. By measuring test scores and including magnet schools, it is basically just a measure of which school has the hardest entrance exam.

Posted by: someguy100 | December 11, 2009 5:26 PM | Report abuse

"As if test scores alone determine the quality of a school. Sigh."

Make that at least 3 sighs! Our national obsession with basing assessments entirely on standardized testing should have set off all kinds of alarm bells by now.

This article begs many additional questions:
What about the "best" physical environments for learning?
What about student bodies that model
ethics and non-violent/bullying behavior?
What about schools that provide great
teacher support?
What about schools that build community?
Etc., etc., etc.

Lies, damn lies, and statistics?

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | December 12, 2009 12:58 AM | Report abuse


I suspect Thomas Jefferson has all the qualities you mentioned much better than most schools. As an educator you can only have so many young people doing well if those qualities you mentioned exist in a meaningful amount. Yet any magnet school that requires an application, a competitive one at that it seems, cannot be considered a traditional public high school. I teach in one of the most iconically depraved urban areas in the country: Watts-Los Angles. While my school is considered a charter school, by decree we accept every neighborhood child that chooses to attend our high school. The social and academic range of student we teach is far different than Thomas Jefferson's; a very small number of our students could attend Jefferson, but most could not. When you accept large percentages of students who either did not complete middle school successfully/several years behind in their academic skills, e.g. 9th graders with barely 5th grade math skills, let me see data on schools who take these students and do 6-7 years of work in 4 years.
If the goal is using Jefferson as a model of how to educate young people, then allow all schools to structure themselves as Jefferson does. They may be the best public MAGNET school, but they cannot be considered the best traditional public high school because they are not.

Posted by: pdfordiii | December 13, 2009 7:46 AM | Report abuse

Here is a thoughtful article about HS rankings and what they mean:

Posted by: artsynj | December 13, 2009 10:49 AM | Report abuse


I agree with you on all points, particularly the aspect of a school being able to hand-pick its students via tough admission standards... it certainly is not a traditional high school by any stretch of the imagination.
The list of questions I offered was to provoke consideration of factors that facilitate learning of all kinds, and that
quality "learning" may not always produce
the much sought-after numbers our society
thinks represent the whole of a students'
A few more questions I should have included:
What qualities are important for principal leadership? How do these qualities differ from school environment to school environment?
Finally, why aren't we giving the humanities and the arts equal time to math and technology? If everyone is crying out for innovation, conflict resolution and help for at-risk kids, these are the educational areas most likely to provide some meaningful solutions.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | December 14, 2009 11:19 AM | Report abuse

How about best at fostering an environment where the students feel welcome, accepted, and part of a community, where bullying and other horrible things associated with high school are much reduced relative to normal schools? Or best at fostering an environment conducive to challenging yourself to improve and succeed, regardless of your chosen field?

I am a former TJ student now in graduate school, so of course my opinion is somewhat biased. But I can say that I've never been happier than when I was at TJ. And I can also say that I know plenty of people who were "a brilliant writer who can’t reason out a geometric proof" or "someone who wants to spend high school reading as much literature as possible", and they all say the same thing. It's the environment that makes TJ so special.

I know standardized test scores don't completely judge a school and that no school is best for all students, but TJ certainly does "meets the needs, abilities and interests of each student" who attends it. So please, stop hating on this school.

Posted by: UberJason | December 14, 2009 2:16 PM | Report abuse

I hope Arne Duncan reads this article and identifies the discriminatory attitude conveyed by the author toward students with disabilities, such as emotional and learning challenges. Perhaps he would be willing to share a copy of the "Dear Colleague" letter published by the Office of Civil Rights in December 2007 that made it clear that qualified students must be allowed equal access to advanced academic classes despite their disability and without giving up their necessary services and supports.
While he was at it, he could also mention the fact that students who require special education services to achieve their high potential, may be denied access to these same classes by the failures of the system to meet their needs prior to the time of their TJ application, thereby leading to rejection because of low grades, even though they passed the admission test.

Posted by: Notyourmomma | December 14, 2009 6:36 PM | Report abuse

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