By Lisa Rosenthal
First and foremost, it has a learning environment where the focus is on student achievement and the proof is in the pudding — high test scores. It's a school where the emphasis is on continuous improvement — where students are always striving to do better.
Parent involvement and parent satisfaction are key components, too; students perform better when their parents care about them and the school they attend. Parents can help their children succeed by modeling the behaviors and skills they want their children to develop. Parents can help their school by advocating for their children's best interests and participating in the school community.
Based on these criteria, we've crunched the numbers to find top high schools in each of the 50 states plus the District of Columbia in the following categories: Top-Performing School; Top-Performing Closing-the-Achievement-Gap School; Most Improved.
No list can ever be completely definitive. It can't capture other qualities we also consider important in a great school — a school culture that values honesty, kindness to others and involvement in one's community, and encourages students to be curious and engages them in activities that teach critical thinking skills.
There are other schools in each of the states that are great schools, too, even if they didn't make the GreatSchools/BusinessWeek Top-Performing Schools
list. The schools we have chosen in each of our categories exemplify these qualities we consider key to making a great school: top academic performance, academic improvement and parent involvement.
If you are searching for a school in your community, these top schools can be your benchmarks — check out their school profiles and parent reviews on GreatSchools — How do they compare to the schools you are looking at?
For each state and the District of Columbia, we chose one school in each of our categories. Here's how we came up with our list:
We looked at the most recent test scores available for reading, math and science. In some cases, that's 2007-2008 and in others it's 2006-2007. Reading and math were weighted twice as much as science. Where available, we used the percentage of students scoring at the advanced level. In states where advanced levels were not reported, we used the percentage of students scoring at the "proficient or above" level.
Enrollment — To be considered, a school had to have at least half of the median enrollment for high schools in its state, or at least 100 students. For some states, the median enrollment is around 100, so for those a cut-off of 100 is used rather than half of the median.
The top third of schools having the highest percentage of economically disadvantaged students were considered for this award. States have different labels for low-income: Some states call it "students participating in free or reduced-price lunch program," some call it "students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch" and others call it "economically disadvantaged" or "low-income students." For our purposes, we treated all these labels as the same category. The test scores for these schools were analyzed in the same way as for the top-performing schools above.
These schools showed the greatest improvement in test scores when comparing scores from the most recent year available to the year before. We compared grade-level improvement rather than student group improvement. For example, we compared 10th-grade scores for this year to 10th- grade scores last year, as opposed to comparing student scores in 10th grade and then the same group of students and their scores for 11th grade. It's important to note that the improvement could be a result of the differences in the two sets of students rather than the success of the instruction. These schools also had to meet our minimum enrollment as outlined above for Top Performing Schools.
An added note: For some states, such as New Hampshire and Georgia, there wasn't sufficient data available to choose a school in each of our categories. For these states, we have chosen top schools depending on the data available.
Updated March 2009