Since the America’s Most Challenging High Schools list began in 1998, I have learned something new every year. For instance, a surprise trend of rejecting football has appeared. Here are some other key lessons of the 2014 version that just launched:
1. It is not true that schools full of low-income kids are always at a disadvantage in school rankings. American Indian Public Charter of Oakland (No. 1, 77 percent low-income students), Young Women’s Prep of Dallas (No. 9, 67 percent low-income), Rangel Young Women’s Leadership of Miami (No. 20, 72 percent low-income) and Preuss of La Jolla (No. 39, 100 percent low-income) rank far above schools like Scarsdale, New Trier and McLean, all of which have low-income student populations below 10 percent.
2. Public schools are just as good as private schools, if they serve the same kinds of students. The Gwinnett School of Math, Science and Tech, which is public, and St. Andrews, which is private, are two Georgia schools with nearly identical ratings on the list, at No. 17 and No. 18 respectively. They are both selective, so they have similarly well-motivated students. The Menlo School in Atherton, Calif., caters to affluent students, as does George Mason High School in the wealthy Virginia suburb of Falls Church. Their ratings are nearly identical.
3. The South is rising as a hotbed of successful educational innovation. Of the top 50 schools on the list, 17 are in Texas and 11 are in Florida. Many are charters and magnets designed to raise the achievement of low-income minority students.
4. Some little-known private schools show a deeper commitment than some well-known private schools to engaging average students in college-level courses. St. Andrews, Dallas International, St. Anselm’s Abbey, and the Washington International School, none of them the least bit famous, are all in the top 50. Andover, the alma mater of President George W. Bush, and Punahou, alma mater of President Barack Obama, are both well-known, splendid schools, but on this list they are ranked 774th and 639th respectively.
5. Even great schools can be distracted by local political squabbles. The people in charge of No. 13 Corbett School are trying to evict No. 3 Corbett Charter School from its building.
6. Private schools have long been uncomfortable releasing data that would allow them to be ranked, but many are loosening up. In the Washington area alone, Maret, the National Cathedral School, Holton-Arms and Madeira appear on the list for the first time after they put the relevant data on their Web sites.
7. The Washington area remains the national leader in challenging its students. More than 70 percent of its public schools make the list.
8. Small schools do well, but only certain kids of small schools. Gates Foundation research showed that small schools on average did no better than large ones in raising achievement, but the study did not focus just on the small schools with strong AP, IB or AICE programs — the ones on this list. It makes a big difference.
9. Several well-known schools with reputations for excellence, such as Scarsdale, Mamaroneck, New Trier, Newton South, Maret, Exeter and Andover, made the list, but at lower rungs. They say their courses have gone beyond AP and IB, They say their quality cannot be measured numerically. Maybe. Maybe not. We only have their word for it.
10. High schools are NOT dropping AP, IB and AICE, as has been rumored. The list has many relatively new high schools that have embraced this way of challenging students with an unshakable standard backed by independently written and graded exams. Giving students that many college-level exams is often denounced as too much pressure. The students at these schools, many of them magnets, charters and private schools they choose, say that is not so.