Thomas Jefferson at Top of Class

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 30, 2007

U.S. News & World Report, in its first ranking of "America's Best High Schools," has rated Fairfax County's elite Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology tops in the nation.

Five other schools from the Washington suburbs -- two in Fairfax and three in Montgomery County -- are among the magazine's top 100 "gold" schools. The list is to be posted on the magazine's Web site today and appear in its Dec. 10 edition.

Schools were judged on how well students score on state reading and math tests, as well as participation and achievement in challenging Advanced Placement courses. The system was created by a unit of the rating and research company Standard & Poors and by Andrew J. Rotherham, co-director of the think tank Education Sector and a member of the Virginia Board of Education.

"Public high schools have a mission to educate a range of students. It's not enough to just focus on the best kids or to just focus on remediation for the worst kids. You have to do both," said Brian Kelly, editor of U.S. News. "This methodology is set up to allow a fair comparison of that."

Kelly said U.S. News, known for ranking the nation's colleges, graduate schools and hospitals, had long wanted to develop a similar rating of high schools but felt there weren't enough data available. He said test data that have emerged since the federal No Child Left Behind Act was passed, and an increase in schools with AP courses, made the rankings possible.

The rating is intended to rival Newsweek's "Best American High Schools," a listing developed by Jay Mathews, a Washington Post reporter who is a contributing editor for that magazine. His annual Challenge Index is based on school participation rates in AP and International Baccalaureate testing.

Thomas Jefferson's top rating was not a surprise. The selective public magnet school, which accepts students from several Northern Virginia school systems, is known for a rigorous curriculum and off-the-charts SAT scores. TJ students are even working with a local aerospace company to build a satellite.

"There's a mind-set here that we want our students to be innovative, creative and problem solvers," Principal Evan Glazer said. "We don't feel there are boundaries to learning."

Fairfax's Langley High landed on the list at No. 37, and Oakton High was ranked 87th. Montgomery's Thomas S. Wootton High was rated 34th, Walt Whitman High 40th and Winston Churchill High 42nd.

"We're certainly thrilled to have three in the top 50 in the nation," said Brian Edwards, chief of staff for Montgomery schools Superintendent Jerry D. Weast. "We are certainly a district that is perfectly fine with publications that attempt to measure quality because we're always trying to measure quality ourselves."

The U.S. News analysis considered more than 18,500 high schools in 40 states. The District was not included.

Schools were screened initially on achievement on standardized reading and math tests, with extra scrutiny given to scores of disadvantaged students. Schools that made initial cuts were rated on participation and performance in Advanced Placement courses.

Schools that don't offer AP courses or don't have enough students participating in them weren't eligible for the top-100 list. But U.S. News includes a separate category of high performers that does include such schools.

Gerald N. Tirozzi, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said he's wary of ratings. He said that available data can't capture all of a school's accomplishments and that too many schools are left off of lists even though they are making strong gains.

"I'm sure the schools on the list are well-deserving," he said, "but for every one honored, there are several hundred more that are pretty darn close."

Rotherham said the list offers some lessons on the status of the nation's high schools. For example, he said, rural schools are underrepresented, suggesting more access is needed to AP courses. He said only about one in eight schools that made the list has more than half of its students in poverty.

"This list is a stark indicator of just how far we have to go on high school reform," Rotherham said.

He said the rating system is a work in progress. "Is this the absolute best way to rank high schools? No. It's the best way with the data at hand.

"Ten years from now, you'll be able to do much more," Rotherham said.

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