How U.S. News Calculated the 2013 Best High Schools Rankings

Robert J. Morse
April 23, 2013

To produce the 2013 U.S. News & World Report Best High Schools rankings, U.S. News teamed up with the Washington, D.C.-based American Institutes for Research (AIR), one of the largest behavioral and social science research organizations in the world.

AIR implemented U.S. News's comprehensive rankings methodology, which is based on the key principles that a great high school must serve all of its students well, not just those who are college-bound, and that it must be able to produce measurable academic outcomes to show the school is successfully educating its student body across a range of performance indicators.

The methodology used in the 2013 Best High Schools rankings was unchanged from the 2012 edition.

We analyzed 21,035 public high schools in 49 states and the District of Columbia. This is the total number of public high schools that had 12th-grade enrollment and sufficient data from the 2010-2011 school year to analyze. (Nebraska was the only state that did not report enough data and therefore was not evaluated for any part of the rankings.)

National rankings

A three-step process determined the Best High Schools. The first two steps ensured that the schools serve all of their students well, using performance on state proficiency tests as the benchmarks. For those schools that made it past the first two steps, a third step assessed the degree to which schools prepare students for college-level work.

-- Step 1: The first step determined whether each school's students were performing better than statistically expected for the average student in the state. We started by looking at reading and math results for all students on each state's high school proficiency tests.

We then factored in the percentage of economically disadvantaged students (who tend to score lower) enrolled at the school to identify the schools that were performing better than statistical expectations.

-- Step 2: For those schools that made it past this first step, the second step determined whether the school's least-advantaged students (black, Hispanic and low-income) were performing better than average for similar students in the state.

We compared each school's math and reading proficiency rates for disadvantaged students with the statewide results for these student groups and then selected schools that were performing better than this state average.

-- Step 3: Schools that made it through the first two steps became eligible to be judged nationally on the final step - college-readiness performance - using Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate test data as the benchmarks for success, depending on which program was largest at the school.

AP is a College Board program that offers college-level courses at high schools across the country. The International Baccalaureate program also offers a college-level curriculum.

This third step measured which schools produced the best college-level achievement for the highest percentages of their students. This was done by computing a "college readiness index" (CRI) based on the school's AP or IB participation rate (the number of 12th-grade students in the 2010-2011 academic year who took at least one AP or IB test before or during their senior year, divided by the number of 12th-graders) and how well the students did on those tests.

The latter part, called the quality-adjusted AP or IB participation rate, is the number of 12th-grade students in the 2010-2011 academic year who took and passed (received an AP score of 3 or higher or an IB score of 4 or higher) at least one of the tests before or during their senior year, divided by the number of 12th-graders at that school. Any individual AP or IB subject test was considered when determining if a student took or passed at least one test.

For the college readiness index, the quality-adjusted participation rate was weighted 75 percent in the calculation, and the simple AP or IB participation rate was weighted 25 percent. The test that was taken by the most students at a particular school - either AP or IB - was used to calculate that school's college readiness index.

Only schools that had values at or above 14.8 in their CRI scored high enough to meet the criteria for gold and silver medal selection. The minimum of 14.8 was used because it's the median (the statistical midpoint) of all the college readiness index values among all high schools with AP or IB test-takers.

The maximum college readiness index value is 100.0, which means that every 12th-grade student during the 2010-2011 academic year in a particular school took and passed at least one AP or IB test before or during their senior year.

To summarize, in order to win a gold or silver medal and be numerically ranked, a high school had to pass Steps 1 and 2 and have a CRI at or above the median benchmark.

In total, U.S. News nationally ranked the 4,805 highest-scoring schools as gold, silver or bronze. A high school's position in the numerical rankings, whether it was awarded a medal or whether it was ranked at all was dependent on how high it scored in all three steps of the rankings methodology.

-- Gold medals: Schools with highest unrounded college readiness index values were numerically ranked from No. 1 to No. 500 and were the gold medal winners.

There were 15 high schools that achieved the maximum 100.0 college readiness index. In addition, there were instances in which gold or silver medal schools were tied based on their unrounded CRI values (these values, when published online as part of the Best High Schools rankings, are rounded to one decimal place).

To avoid having ties in the numerical rankings, the primary tiebreaker, which measures the absolute level of success in passing AP or IB tests, was the unrounded quality-adjusted exams per test-taker (the number of exams that received passing scores divided by the number of students who took and passed at least one exam).

If necessary, a second tiebreaker used was exams per test-taker, which was the average number of AP and/or IB exams passed per test-taker (the total exams taken divided by the number of test-takers).

-- Silver medals: The next group of high schools with the highest unrounded college readiness indexes were numerically ranked No. 501 through No. 2,290 and were the 1,790 silver medal winners.

-- Bronze medals: An additional 2,515 high schools that passed the first two steps in the methodology were awarded bronze medals and are listed alphabetically. A bronze medal school either does not offer any AP or IB courses, or its college readiness index was less than the median of 14.8 needed to be ranked silver.

In addition to the main gold, silver and bronze national rankings, we have also published other numerical rankings for the Best High Schools in each state and for the Best Charter Schools and Best Magnet Schools on a national level.

State rankings

The state rankings methodology is based on whether a high school is nationally ranked gold or silver. All high schools nationally ranked gold and silver are numerically ranked in their states based on their position in the national rankings.

If the highest-ranked high school in a state is No. 60 nationally, then that school is also ranked No. 1 in that state; if the second highest-ranked school in that same state is No. 1,201 nationally, then that school is ranked No. 2 in that state.

Charter and magnet rankings

The charter and magnet school rankings methodology looked at all public high schools nationally that were designated as either a charter or magnet school, or both, as reported to the U.S. Department of Education, and were also nationally ranked by U.S. News as either gold or silver medal winners.

If the highest-ranked high school that is a charter school is No. 6 nationally, then that school is also ranked No. 1 in the Best Charter Schools rankings. If the second highest-ranked high school that is a charter school is No. 8 nationally, then that school is ranked No. 2 in the Best Charter Schools rankings.

This rankings methodology was also followed to produce the Best Magnet Schools rankings.

Highlights of the 2013 Best High Schools rankings

-- Breakdown of the results: After first eliminating public high schools that had fewer than 15 12th-grade students during the 2010-2011 school year, there were 18,196 schools eligible to be included in the 2013 Best High schools rankings.

As a result of the three-step rankings process, 26.4 percent of the 18,196 eligible public high schools were awarded a gold, silver or bronze medal: 2,515 high schools (13.8 percent of the eligible schools) were awarded bronze medals; 1,790 high schools (9.8 percent) were awarded silver medals; and 500 high schools (2.7 percent) were awarded gold medals.

In order for a high school to receive a gold medal in this year's rankings, it had to have a college readiness index of 45.75 or higher.

-- Lower college readiness threshold to decide medal status: Starting with the 2012 Best High Schools rankings, U.S. News changed the methodology so that each year's median CRI will be the new threshold used to determine the medal status cutoff for that year's rankings. Therefore, the median CRI is expected to change slightly for each year's rankings.

The premise of using the median as the CRI threshold is that a school had to be performing at or better than half the schools to be eligible for a gold or silver medal. Since the median separates the higher and lower halves of the CRI data, we chose it as the basis for determining the medal cutoff.

As a result, in Step 3 of the 2013 rankings, we used achieving at or above the median college readiness index of 14.8 - versus 16.3 in the 2012 rankings - as the basis to determine the cutoff for schools to be ranked with a gold, silver or bronze medal. Only schools that had CRI values at or above 14.8, calculated on an unrounded basis to many decimal places, scored high enough to meet the criteria for gold and silver medal selection.

For a more detailed methodology, see the technical appendix produced by AIR.