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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 10/19/2009

The Best High School in America?

By Valerie Strauss

A reader asked if Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, Va., is, in fact, “America’s best high school.” It says so on the cover of Washingtonian magazine’s October issue.

I'll answer that with a question: For whom is it the best?

Thomas Jefferson is indeed one amazing school, with top programs not only in math and science and technology but also in the humanities, the arts and the social sciences. Its students go through a rigorous admissions process and win all manner of academic, sports and other titles.

But "the best?"

Not one of the best? Or the best according to certain data? Or the best for kids who are great at competing in the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search? Or the best for math geniuses? Or the best for non-geniuses who are still better with numbers than most Earthlings and who also are super at soccer and/or modeling and who have a sturdy nervous system that can handle the intense competition?

Nope. Right on the magazine cover it says, “The best high school in America,” and, "Why You Should Hate This School.”

We can easily dispense with the bit about why you should hate the place. One presumes you are supposed to hate it because your kids don’t stand a chance of attending. (Maybe you don’t live anywhere near the Washington region, or your child does not have sufficient brainpower, or your child is a genius but has had bad luck in the admissions draw; the magnet school gets many more applications for available spaces.)

I don't know about you, but it is hard for me to whip up enmity for a school that isn’t teaching kids the ins and outs of being a terrorist.

So let’s look at the “best high school” claim. How do we know?

The story says this and that about how Thomas Jefferson has more Intel search semifinalists than any other school, as well as a bunch of sports titles and other such distinctions. And it details the lives of some remarkable young people. The place clearly rocks.

But the reason the story says it is the country’s best is because U.S. News & World Report says so. In its last few annual rankings of high schools, Thomas Jefferson was atop the list of 100 gold medal schools.

The magazine uses a complicated formula that is essentially based on test scores of various kinds for different populations of students.

The methodology makes more sense than the one that the magazine uses for its college rankings; for that, the largest factor is a subjective measure in which top college officials are asked to give their opinion of other schools’ reputations. Really.

For the high school ranking, math and reading standardized test scores in each state are used to see how many students in each school do better than the average student.

But each state has its own assessments and 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.

One can find other lists of “best” high schools that use a different methodology, including my colleague Jay Mathews’ Challenge Index, which used to be published in The Washington Post and is now published annually 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.

Here’s the bottom line, however prosaic it sounds: No school is “best” for all students because all students aren’t the same. What makes a school successful is how well it meets the needs, abilities and interests of its student population.

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, etc.

The measure of a school's success is how well it meets the needs, abilities and interests of its students.

There are many different ways to engage teenagers and help them deeply explore their world, and many marvelous high schools that challenge teenagers in unexpected ways and then send them on the road toward a productive adulthood.

There is no one way that is better than all the rest, and there is no one school that is better than all the others. Saying so seems, well, silly.

How much stock do you put in school rankings?

By Valerie Strauss  | October 19, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  High School  | Tags:  Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, high school rankings  
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Amen! Finally a voice of reason.

Posted by: lk11 | October 19, 2009 8:05 AM | Report abuse

Finally! Someone who finally gets that going to the "best high school" is overrated. I can't even tell you how many parents I have seen who stress about getting their kids into the highest scoring high schools but don't consider that their child might be better off in a (gasp) an average performing school, especially since it increases their chances of getting into a better University.

Posted by: RedVox | October 19, 2009 9:44 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for clarifying the source of the ranking! I couldn't agree more that different kids need different schools. I was struck more though by the deep ambivalence reflected in the Washingtonian article itself (as opposed to the highly rational blog!.) We want our kids to excel in school, but not too much or not too many of them or not at the expense of soccer and choir and free time and etc... There seems to be something about academic excellence per se that is threatening to us as a culture. That attitude of course is tied up with our egalitarian ideals. However, it has an anti-intellectual tinge that is troubling and it represents a very realliability in in our competitive, global economy.

Posted by: meltemiakf | October 19, 2009 4:42 PM | Report abuse

That magazine cover really bothered me when I saw it on. Thanks for addressing this.

By the way, math and music are connected! Time and again, I see talented students interested in math or engineering who also happen to be musicians. I haven't attended a concert at TJ, but I have a feeling their musical groups are stellar.

Posted by: DeanJ | October 21, 2009 2:18 PM | Report abuse

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