US News releases 2021 best high schools rankings

Before college or a lucrative career comes another milestone for students: graduating from high school. Earning a high school diploma opens up college and career options and can also lead to hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional lifetime earnings.

High school graduates age 25 and over who didn’t have a college degree received median weekly earnings of $792 in the first quarter of 2021 compared with $613 for those without a high school diploma, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Additionally, a greater percentage of workers age 25 and over without a high school diploma have been unemployed throughout the coronavirus pandemic compared with those with higher levels of education.

Simply put, graduating from high school literally pays off. And that’s what top-ranked high schools do: get students to graduation day. Graduation rates and college readiness are both key metrics in the 2021 Best High Schools rankings, released today, which weighed those factors alongside various other data points.

U.S. News ranked approximately 17,860 public high schools after reviewing nearly 24,000 in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The number of ranked schools is up by around 70 from last year. U.S. News worked with North Carolina-based RTI International, a global nonprofit social science research firm, on the 2021 Best High Schools rankings.

[See: Top 25 Best High Schools.]

The ranking methodology uses state education data from the 2018-2019 school year. Additional data was provided by the College Board and International Baccalaureate on their respective college-prep programs, Advanced Placement and IB.

Here are the six indicators of school quality U.S. News used to calculate the rankings:

— College readiness, based on the proportions of 12th grade students who took and earned a qualifying score on AP and/or IB exams.

— College curriculum breadth, based on proportions of 12th grade students who took and earned a qualifying score on AP and/or IB exams in multiple content areas.

— Math and reading proficiency, based on student performance on state-required tests.

— Math and reading performance, based on whether performance on state assessments exceeded expectations given the school’s proportion of underserved students.

— Underserved student performance, based on how Black, Hispanic and low-income students performed on state assessments compared with those who are not underserved in the state.

— Graduation rate, based on the proportion of students who entered ninth grade in 2015-2016 and graduated four years later.

Schools claiming the top spots in the rankings are those where students excelled on state tests, performing beyond expectations; participated in and earned a qualifying score on various college-level exams; and graduated at high proportions. Using these six standardized and weighted scores, U.S. News ranked schools based on an overall percentile score between zero and 100. U.S. News assigned numerical ranks to schools performing in the top 75%. Schools scoring below the 25th percentile are listed alphabetically with a ranking range.

Familiar schools fill out the top spots in the 2021 edition of the Best High Schools rankings. At No. 1, once again, is Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Virginia with an overall score of 100. Academic Magnet High School in South Carolina is again at No. 2.

The remaining eight of the top high schools in the national rankings, in order, are: The Davidson Academy of Nevada, Payton College Preparatory High School in Illinois, School for Advanced Studies in Florida, Sumner Academy of Arts and Science in Kansas, Merrol Hyde Magnet School in Tennessee, BASIS Chandler in Arizona, Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science and Technology in Georgia, and Signature School in Indiana. Of these 10 geographically diverse schools, four were not ranked in the top 10 last year.

U.S. News also ranked the top magnet schools and charter schools separately based on how these schools performed in the national rankings.

Both magnets and charters are public schools, albeit with a twist. Magnets typically follow a thematic curriculum often tied to the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math; fine arts; career and technical education; or other areas of study. Students are commonly admitted to magnet schools through a lottery system.

Charter schools are part of public school systems but independently operated, which means greater autonomy over curriculum and exemption from some state laws and regulations. While the majority of states and the District of Columbia have charter schools, five currently do not.

[Read: Magnet Schools vs. Charter Schools: Differences Explained.]

As with the top overall spot, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology also claims No. 1 among magnet schools. BASIS Chandler in Arizona, ranked No. 8 overall, is the No. 1 charter school.

U.S. News also ranked the Best High Schools for STEM, with an emphasis on AP science and math test participation and results for 2019 graduates. Of the 250 schools on this list, all were required to be in the top 1,000 of the overall national rankings to be eligible.

Once again, the top STEM school is High Technology High School in New Jersey, which ranked No. 53 overall. Three of the schools that made the overall top 10 also cracked the top 10 in the STEM rankings, with BASIS Chandler at No. 4 in the STEM rankings, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology at No. 5 and The Davidson Academy of Nevada at No. 6.

How states fared in the 2021 Best High Schools rankings varies, with no state placing more than one school in the top 10 overall. Two states, Texas and New York, have 12 schools each in the top 100 and California has 10, with no others rising above this number.

Taking a broader view, Massachusetts is on top when compared with other states for the largest proportion of schools in the top 25% of the Best High Schools rankings. The Bay State has 46.3% of its eligible schools in the top quarter of the national rankings, followed by Connecticut with 43.9% and Maryland with 40.6%.

[Read: How States Compare in the 2021 Best High Schools Rankings.]

High schools are also ranked by metropolitan area. To be eligible for these rankings a metro area must have three or more high schools in the national rankings.

When looking at which metro areas have the largest proportion of schools in the top 25% of the overall rankings, San Jose, California, once again tops the list. This metro area, which includes schools in Sunnyvale, Santa Clara and the city itself, had 63.5% of its schools ranked in the top quarter. Next is Bridgeport, Connecticut, which contains schools from Stamford, Norwalk and the city itself, followed by Los Angeles, which includes schools from Long Beach, Anaheim and the city itself.

For the second year in a row, U.S. News also ranked high schools within school districts for those that have three or more high schools; a school’s district rank is based on its performance in the overall national rankings.

See the complete rankings of the Best High Schools.

More from U.S. News

10 Things to Consider When Picking Your Child’s High School

IB vs. AP: Discover the Differences

16 High School Graduation Gift Ideas

U.S. News Releases 2021 Best High Schools Rankings originally appeared on

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up