Help Find the Super High Schools

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 24, 2006 12:00 PM

During the eight years I have been identifying the most challenging public high schools for The Washington Post and Newsweek magazine, readers have asked one question far more than any other. Why, they say, isn't my school, one of the most selective public magnet high schools in the country, on the list?

My answer has been that although public schools that admit only students with the best grades and test scores, such as Thomas Jefferson in Fairfax County, Virginia, or Stuyvesant in New York City or the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora, Ill., or Lowell in San Francisco, are terrific, they are too good for my list.

I designed the Challenge Index, which ranks schools by student participation in college level tests, to show which schools had learned the lesson taught me by some of the nation's best Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate teachers. They let me watch their classes in action and persuaded me that even average kids can handle college-level courses and tests and should be encouraged to do so.

If your school has no, or very few, average students, then there is no way for it to demonstrate how open it would be to letting them take AP or IB courses and tests. Those three- to five-hour exams written and graded by outside experts, if done well, correlate with higher college graduation rates, no matter if you were an A student in high school or not. But most American high schools discourage average students from even attempting to take these courses and tests, and it is that reluctance to challenge students that I wished to explore with the list.

Few of the students, teachers or parents associated with the most selective public high schools seem very satisfied with my answer. They often say something like: But doesn't our school deserve some attention too, since you admit it is so good?

They are, of course, right about that. So with your help I am going to attempt to give them the attention they deserve, and at the same time improve the way I have been deciding which magnet schools should be kept off the Challenge Index list.

The Washington Post has set up a new e-mail address,, for me to receive data and insights you have on this issue. It took me weeks to get through the overload of e-mails after the most recent Newsweek and Washington Post Challenge Index lists, so I thought a separate mailbox was in order. I welcome your input, particularly if you have first-hand information to impart.

I am putting in this column my list of the most selective public high schools in the country. I discussed many of them in my 1998 book, "Class Struggle," which introduced the Challenge Index, but I suspect some new ones have opened since, and I would like to hear about them too. In each case, I am in search of, from school officials or anyone who knows these schools well: the school's address, fax number, total enrollment, admissions criteria, average SAT and ACT scores for the class of 2005, number of AP or IB grades reported in 2005, number of June graduates in 2005, Equity and Excellence percentage for the class of 2005, percentage of students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunch and, most importantly, what you consider the school's strengths and weaknesses. I want to know what you most like about the school, and what you think it adds to public education in your area, and in the country.

So far I cannot think of any sensible way to rank such schools, but I will check the information you send me and try to produce a guide to these schools. I will try to contact magnet schools that do not respond to this appeal and offer them a chance to tell me about themselves.

Here is my current list of selective magnets. The asterisks denote the ones that have NOT been excluded from the Challenge Index list:

Academic Magnet, North Charleston, S.C.

Baltimore Polytechnic Institute

Banneker Academic, Washington, D.C. *

Benjamin Franklin, New Orleans

Boston Latin, Boston

Bronx High School of Science, New York

Brooklyn Technical, New York

City College, Baltimore*

City Honors, Buffalo

Center for Advanced Technologies, St. Petersburg, Fla.

Maggie L. Walker Governor's School for Government and International Studies, Richmond

Hume-Fogg Academic, Nashville

Hunter College, New York

Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, Aurora, Ill.

Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics and Humanities, Muncie, Ind.

Jefferson County International Baccalaureate, Irondale, Ala.*

Lincoln Park, Chicago*

Louisiana School for Math, Science and the Arts, Natchitoches, La.

Lowell, San Francisco

Martin Luther King Jr. Magnet, Nashville

McNair Academic, Jersey City, N.J.*

Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, Columbus, Miss.

North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, Durham, N.C.

Oklahoma School of Science and Math, Oklahoma City, Okla.

Pine View, Osprey, Fla.

Science and Engineering Magnet, Dallas*

South Carolina Governor's School for Science and Math, Hartsville. S.C.

Staten Island Technical, New York

Stuyvesant, New York

Suncoast Community, Riviera Beach, Fla.

Talented and Gifted Magnet, Dallas

Texas Academy of Math and Science, Denton, Tex.

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Fairfax County, Va.

Troy, Fullerton, Calif.*

University, Tucson

Walnut Hills, Cincinnati

Whitney, Cerritos, Calif.

Whitney M. Young Magnet, Chicago

The Newsweek editors and I decided to put some of these schools on the Challenge Index list because they did not appear to violate our rule of admitting no more than half of their students based on competitive grades and test scores. Yet this turned out to be, at least to my mind, a very subjective standard, and I have been looking for a clearer and fairer way to decide which schools have too few average students.

Here is my latest idea, for which I also need your help. I cringe at the idea of rating high schools by their average SAT and ACT scores. Those test results correlate closely with family income, and measure not how good the school is but how good the students are because they have affluent families that have exposed them to books and conversation and the arts and other academic advantages. But in deciding which magnet schools to allow on the Challenge Index list, I think SAT and ACT averages might be useful.

Any public high school that has no more than half of its students selected by grades and test scores and has at least as many AP or IB tests as it has graduating seniors is placed the Newsweek list of the nation's most challenging schools. Those schools, I think, have enough average students to merit inclusion. But some of them, I have discovered, are in such affluent areas that their average SAT or ACT scores are higher than those of some of the magnet schools I have kept off the list for being too selective.

Thomas Jefferson is the only public high school I have kept off The Washington Post's local Challenge Index list, and I don't think there is a school in the country, magnet or not, that matches its intimidating average SAT score of 1480. But another magnet school, Banneker in the District, I put on the list because its average SAT score was only 1076, lower than the SAT averages of several non-magnet schools in the Washington suburbs. Lowell in San Francisco, whose alumni have been among the most persistent in questioning its absence from the list, was reported to have an SAT average of 1236 in one Internet posting. That is very good, but below that of at least a few non-magnet schools on the list.

The new rule I am thinking of proposing to my editors at Newsweek is to add to the list any previously excluded magnet schools whose average SAT or ACT scores are no higher than the highest SAT or ACT average for any non-magnet public school in the country. The ACT said its highest average for a non-magnet school with significant numbers of ACT test takers is 26.8 out of 36 points, the rough equivalent of 1200 out of 1600 on the SAT in 2005, the last year before the SAT switched to its new three part test with a top score of 2400.

Getting the top non-magnet school average for the SAT, however, is not going to be so easy. The ACT people said they could honor their agreement not to share individual school data by not telling me which school had that 26.8 average. (I have since found a school, New Trier in Winnetka, Ill., which has that exact ACT average.) But the College Board, which owns the SAT, declined to tell me what their highest non-magnet school average was, much less name the school.

I have begun my own search for the highest regular school SAT in America. I invite you to join me. So far, the highest I have found is 1283, at Saratoga High School in Saratoga, Calif., Steven Spielberg's alma mater. I have visited this fine public school in the heart of Silicon Valley. It has many affluent and education-oriented families, and its high average is not entirely unexpected. The second highest average I have found so far is 1275 at Scarsdale High School in Westchester County, N.Y., where I once lived. It claims Aaron Sorkin, creator of "The West Wing" on NBC, among its famous graduates, and it is sort of like Saratoga, but with snow and lots of Yankee fans.

So far I haven't found many other normal enrollment high schools that come very close to those two. The highest non-magnet school average in the Washington area is 1267, at Whitman High School in Bethesda, part of the Montgomery County school system. Most of the other schools I have looked at around the country are in the low 1200s. (The ranks of the schools just mentioned on the national Challenge Index list are Whitman 108, Saratoga 204, Scarsdale 210 and New Trier 295.)

If you are a school guidance head with the numbers at your finger tips, or find an SAT or ACT report on your local high school's Web site, send any average scores for the class of 2005 that are at least 1250 on the SAT or 28 on the ACT to I will check out what you send me, and try to sort out the status of our nation's most selective public schools, and our highest SAT or ACT scorers, in a future column.

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