The Nation's Most Elite Public Schools

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 23, 2008; 6:13 AM

Each year when Newsweek publishes its list of America's Top High Schools, I always know what question the largest number of e-mails will ask. To paraphrase, and somewhat soften, the usual language: "Where the devil is my nationally famous magnet school on your dumb list?"

The Newsweek list is based on the Challenge Index, my device for rating schools by their success in persuading students, particularly average students, to take college-level courses and exams. I exclude from the list those public schools with special enrollment systems that turn out to be so selective that the schools have few, or no, average students.

Many of the alumni of these fine institutions are unhappy about this, and I understand why. They worked hard to get into those high schools, worked hard to survive academically while they attended them, and think all that effort should be recognized. I think these schools get plenty of recognition already, but my sense of what readers know about them could be wrong. Indeed, if I walked up to the first 100 people I saw on the street and asked them what they knew about IMSA or T.J. or Stuyvesant or Whitney, I would probably get mostly blank stares.

We put the names of the 17 high-performing schools we excluded from the main Challenge Index list on's Public Elites list. But I owe them more notice than that. Here they are below, with a few words on each that we included on the Web site, and some embellishments by me. Oh, and I have ranked them.

Why am I doing that? Ranking of schools at this level is obviously ridiculous, like declaring that the top four quarterbacks in history are Joe Montana, Peyton Manning, Johnny Unitas and Tom Brady in that order. It is pure speculation. But it's fun and helps me make a point about assessing such schools as these 17 very unusual inhabitants of the uppermost tier of the American secondary education system.

I am ranking them by one of the most common, and to me most annoying, measures of high school worth--average total reading and math SAT scores. Those test results are most closely tied to the income of the families that raise these fine students. There is something of that relationship at these schools too. But once you get this many bright students together, SAT becomes largely irrelevant, since they have all gone far beyond the 10th-grade reading comprehension and math puzzles that make up those exams. Notice, for instance, the surprises. Some very well-known elite schools have much lower average SATs than some others. Some selective high schools with terrific reputations, like Lowell in San Francisco, do not have high enough SAT averages to make the Public Elites list and so remain on the main list. It shows how little significance SAT numbers have.

I am still amazed that there are high schools whose average scores would be high enough to get any student who got that score, with a little luck, into the Ivy League. Our rule is if a non-traditional school's average is 1300, or 29 or above on the ACT, it goes on the Public Elites list. We picked 1300 and 29 because those scores are just above the highest average scores of any regular enrollment public school in the country.

Here they are. They deserve more attention than they get, and certainly more attention than I give them. But they don't really need it. People who care about high schools know all these names, and won't forget them:

1. Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Fairfax County. (SAT 1495): The most selective public high school in America, drawing mostly from the affluent households of Northern Virginia and having one of the most talented faculties in the area. The school is located in a ratty old building that used to be a regular school, but once you are inside, the students take over, and like the students in all of these schools, they are amazing.

2. University Laboratory High School, Urbana, Ill. (SAT 1409): There is competitive admission for this day school on the campus of the University of Illinois. It makes good use of its higher education environment.

3. Stuyvesant High School, New York (SAT 1405): Along with Bronx Science, probably the most famous on this list. It has been teaching the city's most academically ambitious students for several generations. It offers about 55 AP courses every semester, and has plenty of courses above that level. My Washington Post colleague Alec Klein tells its story in his recent book, "A Class Apart."

4. (tie)High Technology High, Lincroft, N.J. (SAT 1395): The highest-performing of the growing number of schools with this name across the country. This is a new species of high school, with a great emphasis on modern equipment and hands-on learning.

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