The Nation’s Top 50 High Schools: A Closer Look

The majority of public high schools in U.S. News’ 2022 Best High Schools rankings are traditional public schools, where students are assigned to their local school by district. But the top 50 schools in the rankings look decidedly different, a U.S. News analysis shows. Most offer more advanced courses and either have selective enrollment — with requirements often including a minimum GPA, teacher recommendations and an entrance exam — or a lottery system.

In the 2022 rankings, nearly 24,000 public high schools were reviewed and about 18,000 were ranked, based on college readiness, state assessment proficiency, state assessment performance, underserved student performance, college curriculum breadth and graduation rates. Read more about our rankings methodology here.

Below is a breakdown of the top 50 high schools as ranked by U.S. News, based on school type, student demographics and location.

[Read: U.S. News Releases 2022 Best High Schools Rankings.]

Types of Schools

Half of the schools listed in the top 50 are either charter or magnet schools, according to data reported by state agencies to the National Center for Education Statistics, which was used in the rankings. And of the remaining 25, all but one of the high schools have selective admissions.

Charters and magnets are well overrepresented in the top group. Only 10.8% of all ranked schools are charter schools and 5.2% are magnet; among the top 50 schools, 14% are charter and 36% magnet. Many charters and magnets place an emphasis on Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams, leading to more advanced course options compared to traditional public schools, experts say.

Though subject to the same regulations as traditional public schools, magnet schools are designed to pull in students from across a district or designated region by offering theme-based curricula in fields such as science, technology, engineering and math, performing arts or career and technical education.

Magnet schools generally use a lottery system if there are more applications than available seats. Parents must sign up for the lottery and priority is often given to siblings and those living in close proximity to the school. Students may need to meet certain academic or test requirements to qualify for the lottery or admission.

Entrance exam requirements at these schools “screen some students out and others in,” says Jon Valant, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington D.C.-based public policy organization.

“There (are) going to be the kids who got a lot of instruction in whatever the topic of the exam is and are given some training and practice tests,” he adds. “In general, they are going to do better on those entrance exams.”

Charter schools, on the other hand, do not have entrance exams or admission requirements. But some of these schools, which are independently operated by nonprofit or for-profit companies and exempt from some state and local regulations, also host a lottery for admission.

Weights can be attached to the lottery system, for instance to attract more students of color and low-income students, says Nina Rees, president and chief executive officer of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Like magnets, charters can enroll students from across a designated region (often a state or city limits). But enrollment can come with stipulations. Some schools require parents to sign an agreement committing to extra things, like bringing students in on a weekend for SAT preparation once a month, says Roby Chatterji, associate director for K-12 education policy at the Center for American Progress, a Washington D.C.-based public policy organization.

“By definition, you have to be more engaged as a parent” to send your child to a charter or magnet school, says David Garcia, associate professor at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University, “because you need to pay attention to the admissions requirements and the timeline.” And many charter schools do not provide transportation, meaning some students won’t be able to attend for logistical reasons.

Meanwhile, the other half of the top 50 schools are considered traditional public schools (meaning they are not charter, magnet or private), although most have competitive admissions. All but one of these schools require an entrance exam, certain standardized test scores, a minimum GPA and/or teacher recommendations for admission.

The formula U.S. News uses for these rankings relies heavily on factors that relate to how well kids score on standardized tests, how many advanced classes they take and graduation rates, Valant says.

“So if you have kids coming into school on the very first day ahead of their peers with a whole lot of advantages, you could more or less be sure when they started school that they are going to graduate. They are going to take some AP classes. They will probably do pretty well on those AP tests. Those types of students are going to look very good on a formula like that,” he says. “When you have magnet schools in there, they are essentially screening in those formal and informal ways for a disproportionate number of those kids and charters, in different types of ways, can do the same.”

[READ: What to Know About STEM Public High Schools.]

Student Demographics

When families are able to choose a school, rather than the only option being the local public school to which they are assigned, “you can expect students to go to school with more students like themselves,” Garcia says. “You end up with circumstances where some schools just simply don’t look like the rest of the state population because of parents and students self-selecting into those schools.”

For instance, student enrollment at BASIS Chandler, a charter school located in a suburb of Phoenix, Arizona, and ranked No. 11 in the country by U.S. News, is 78.8% Asian, 10.4% white, 4% Hispanic, 3.7% Black and 0.3% American Indian and Alaska Native. By comparison, enrollment in the public school district in Chandler is 49.8% white, 28.6% Hispanic, 9.8% Asian, 5.2% Black and 1.3% American Indian and Alaska Native, according to third-party data provided to U.S. News.

There’s a similar trend across the rankings: Student demographics at the top 50 public high schools do not match the student demographics at all ranked schools.

On average, nearly 34% of students attending the top 50 high schools are Asian, despite only representing about 3.4% of the population at all ranked schools. Only about 7.2% are Black, even though Black students make up roughly 14.2% of the student body of all ranked schools. Meanwhile, white students represent an average of nearly 33% of the students within the top 50 schools and over half of students among all ranked schools.

As for household income, the average number of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, often used as a proxy for poverty, was 51% at ranked schools overall and 36% in the top 50. (These averages only reflect schools for which data on free and reduced-price lunch are available and may leave out schools without any eligible students.)

“What we see happening with public schools, charter schools and to a degree with magnet schools, is that they tend to reproduce the privilege and inequality that already exists in the society,” says Elena Aydarova, assistant professor of social foundations at Auburn University in Alabama.

“If you have a self-selecting group of parents who choose to come to your school, that affects student demographics,” Chatterji says. “It also makes it easier for you to excel in some of the criteria for what determines the top 50 high schools.”

Location

The number of high-ranking schools varies per state, but none have more than one school in the top 10. Arizona tied with Texas for the most schools featured in the top 50, with seven. That’s despite Arizona having only 425 ranked high schools overall, while Texas has 1,481.

Five of the seven schools in Arizona are in the BASIS Charter Schools network. These schools are located in Phoenix and Tucson or surrounding suburbs, with one in Flagstaff. Meanwhile, four of the seven schools in Texas are located in Dallas, with the remaining three in Houston and Austin.

New York — a state that has a total of 1,212 ranked high schools overall — comes in a close second with six schools in the top 50, all of which are part of the New York City Public Schools district. (That district is the largest in the country.)

The map below shows the locations of the top 50 Best High Schools nationwide and can be filtered by school type: charter, magnet or traditional. Click on the dots to learn more about each school.

[Read: How States Compare in the 2022 Best High Schools Rankings]

Choosing a High School

Families that are able to choose between different public schools should consider both quality and fit, Rees says. “Even if you have four kids in your family, everyone can tell you they are all different in terms of what they like to do and how they like to learn. So having more options is always better than not.”

Factors like safety and social acceptance should come before academics, Garcia says.

“There really is no best school. There is the best school for your child,” he adds. “If your student doesn’t feel safe or they don’t feel like it’s a place where they belong, then you can be (enrolled) in the top U.S. News school, but it likely isn’t going to be effective for your child.”

Valant agrees that there is no checklist of factors that make a “good school,” as the best fit can look really different from one student or family to the next. But generally, a good school should “nurture students to be well-rounded people who will participate constructively in society as they grow older.”

“I think parents and kids know when they are in a school that is doing well for them,” he adds.

See the complete rankings of the Best High Schools.

More from U.S. News

How to Involve Your Child in Choosing a High School

Magnet Schools vs. Charter Schools: Differences Explained

Map: See the Top 100 Public High Schools

The Nation’s Top 50 High Schools: A Closer Look originally appeared on usnews.com

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