The little schools that dominate the top of The Washington Post’s 2012 high school rankings confirm an accelerating trend in American education: We are moving away from the something-for-everyone shopping mall campuses that were once a national model.

Instead of big schools that offer football, auto shop and a wide choice of easy courses, the schools that lead the new list are small magnets and charters that focus on college-level courses and tests.

There are hints of the same change in The Post’s local high school rankings, led by small schools seeking rigor for average students. They include Saint Anselm’s Abbey and Washington International, among the first private schools to appear on The Post’s list. These small, intense schools reflect a movement to apply international standards to American education, using programs like Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and the Advanced International Educational Certificate.

The Post’s full High School Challenge list of more than 1,800 schools, the national top 9 percent, plus local school rankings, can be found online at

Up to now most American high-schoolers have shown a tendency to slide through courses that demand little attention or homework. The past 30 years have seen no significant gains in reading or math among 17-year-olds.

I started the Challenge Index ratings of public high schools in 1998 after I watched teachers like Jaime Escalante in East Los Angeles prove that average students could thrive in AP, IB and AICE courses if given extra time and encouragement. The top school on that first ranked list was Stanton College Prep in Jacksonville, Fla., a magnet funneling a large number of minority as well as white children into demanding courses. The other schools at the top of that first list were mostly suburban schools whose strong AP programs were the result of having affluent, college-oriented parents, not any great plan for social change.

Fourteen years later, Stanton remains in the top 10, but this time, Stanton is joined by many schools like it, although much smaller. Science and Engineering Magnet in Dallas, ranked third, draws 63 percent of its students from low-income families. At the sixth-ranked School for the Talented and Gifted, located in the same building in Dallas, 33 percent come from low-income homes.

For the first time, The Post list includes a sampling of private schools as a way to compare private to public schools, and private to private schools. Most private schools appear not to like such comparisons. On Monday, I will explore their traditional resistance to releasing much data, and why a few have decided to be more open, in part because they think their efforts to strengthen courses for all merit attention.

(I should note here that I am continuing my long-standing practice of keeping certain elite public schools, such as Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, on a separate list because they have few or no average students.)

The Challenge Index uses a measure of college-level test participation simple enough for readers to calculate the ratings of their neighborhood schools. The complex weightings that characterize many other school rankings are not a factor.

I divide the number of AP, IB and AICE exams at each school by the number of graduating seniors. A rural Oregon school like Corbett Charter, which gave only 334 AP tests in 2011, can outrank a big magnet school like Suncoast in Florida, which gave 2,523 AP exams and 1,069 IB exams, because Corbett had only 19 graduates in 2011 and Suncoast had 317.

High school rankings by U.S. News & World Report and Newsweek have appeared in the past few years that adopted a similar methodology. Sadly, in my view, they have mucked it up by adding test-score measures that say more about a school’s average family income than its efforts to raise the level of instruction for average students.

AP, IB and AICE provide introductory college-level tests for high school students that can earn college credit. The exams are much longer than high school finals and rely more on essay questions, requiring teachers to spend more time teaching critical thinking and analytical writing.

When I began writing about AP 30 years ago, educators agreed that such courses should begin no earlier than junior year. That has changed. The two BASIS schools in the national top 10 have ninth-graders taking AP.

A BASIS charter school will open in the District this summer. How it does with urban students who are not used to such demands will be a key indicator of how far small schools pushing international standards might go.

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