News analysis: Why being #2 is a good thing

On May 8, U.S. News and World Report released their annual ranking of public high schools – and for the first time since 2007, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology was not ranked #1. The new best public high school in the United States, according to the publication, is the School for the Talented and Gifted in Dallas, Texas, known as TAG. Many on campus haven’t known how to react to the fall from #1. So, does the drop mean anything dire for our school’s future?

Well, in a word, no. Looking at the methodology behind this year’s rankings, nothing significant has changed between this year and last year. The rankings are created based upon a “college readiness index” that is 25 percent based upon the school’s AP or IB participation rates among seniors in the 2009-2010 academic year and 75 percent based upon the number of seniors who took and passed their AP exams (getting at least a score of 3). When it comes to “college readiness,” both TAG and Jefferson received scores of 100 out of 100.

“I think the whole ranking system is kind of petty. We’re all good schools,” junior Eric Lin said. “Jefferson kids, in our hearts, know we’re number one.”

From a statistical point of view, the two are vastly different schools. TAG has a total student body of 229, with 16 teachers and a focus on the liberal arts. Minority enrollment at TAG sits at 60 percent of the total population, with 20 percent black students, 30 percent Hispanic students and 10 percent Asian students. TAG students take an average of 13.8 AP exams over the course of their high school careers.

Compare that to TJ, with a total student body of 1,792, 106 teachers and a strong focus on math, science and technology. Minority enrollment is 50 percent of the total population, but 47 percent of that total are Asian students. Students at our school take an average of 7.3 AP exams during their time at TJ.

“They’re such a tiny school with strict requirements, so I don’t think it’s a fair comparison,” junior Kevin Huo said.

TAG is a smaller community with an education style that puts an emphasis on their Advanced Placement program, and students from TAG go to many of the same schools that Jefferson students do. However, only 66 percent of TAG students pass their AP exams, versus a 98 percent rate here. No Jefferson student receives failing grades in their AP classes, while a small percentage of TAG students do.

This ranking really is just a numbers game. Our curriculum features classes like Design & Tech and Artificial Intelligence, as well as post-AP classes like Complex Variables and Differential Equations that don’t fall under the AP umbrella. The truly special aspects of Jefferson – the freshman year IBET program, senior tech labs – aren’t taken into account.

It appears Jay Mathews’ Challenge Index with its emphasis on rankings by the number of AP exams offered has influenced U.S. News’ overall evaluation of each school. Perhaps for the first time, the fact that Jefferson only requires one Advanced Placement exam to graduate and has a per student average that’s so much lower than TAG means something extraordinary about our program.

Instead of going the route of standardized courses and testing, we’ve developed a unique list of course offerings that provide the kind of customized instruction needed for our population and our school’s mission statement.

That’s a great reason to be #2.