Best High Schools 2009: The Top States

Since 1998, when NEWSWEEK began identifying the most challenging high schools in the country, the states with the most people—California, Texas, New York and Florida—have always had the most schools on the list. But size isn't everything, and a new analysis shows that three other states have snuck ahead of much larger neighbors to achieve the highest percentages of high schools and students taking college-level tests. (Article continued below...)

The editors of NEWSWEEK, after comparing the number of schools on the America's Top High Schools list to the school totals in each state, discovered that the highest percentages were in Maryland (29.5 percent) and Virginia (24 percent). Both states have benefited from a surge of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate test-taking in their suburbs surrounding Washington, D.C. In the Washington area, most schools have dropped policies restricting access to AP and IB that are still strong in much of the rest of the country.

Another surprise was Delaware, which ranked fourth nationally in the percent of its students attending one of the approximately 1,500 schools on the NEWSWEEK list, a ranking arrived at by factoring in the average per-school enrollment for each state and the total number of high-school students. On that scale, Maryland had 31.6 percent of its high-school students attending a school on our list, with Virginia at 26.6 percent, Florida at 17.2 percent, Delaware at 15 percent and New York at 13.5 percent. Based just on the percentage of schools that made the list, Florida weighed in at 21.2 percent, New York at 14.2 percent, North Carolina at 13.2 percent and Georgia at 12.7 percent. Delaware had just six schools on the list, but that amounts to 12 percent of its 50 public high schools.

The NEWSWEEK list, known as the Challenge Index, was designed to encourage schools to enroll more students in AP, IB and Cambridge courses and tests, which have shown to be good preparation for college even for students who struggle with the college-level material. The most selective colleges now tell applicants that if they have not taken such courses, they are going to have to explain why. Many state education leaders have made expanded participation in AP and IB a top priority.

Both Maryland and Delaware, their school chiefs said in interviews, have created new positions at the state level to visit schools and encourage both more college-level courses and better preparation of students for them. Maryland state school superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said the state official in charge of that effort also uses data, such as PSAT test scores, to help schools identify academically adept students who may have been overlooked for AP because they come from noncollege families. She said the gap between the percent of Hispanic students in these courses and the percent of Hispanic students in the state has disappeared, and the gap for black students is narrowing.

Lillian Lowery, Delaware's education secretary, said her state's small size allowed regular meetings between school-district superintendents and state officials to keep everyone apprised of progress on college-level courses. The school-district leaders have told her, she said, "they want to be more competitive with each other and with private schools."

Virginia state superintendent of public instruction Patricia I. Wright said her state was one of the first to establish standards for all students and require them to pass state tests in English, mathematics, social studies and science in order to graduate from high school. Those standards, she said, "represented minimum competencies but for those who have met minimum we want more—TO strive for college-level credit work." That led the state to plow more resources into AP and IB. "We are pleased with the increases we have achieved, but we still want to do better," she said.

The new NEWSWEEK analysis showed Florida and New York the best of the large states. California, as usual, had the most schools on the list, 243, but that was only 10.6 percent of the schools in the state. Texas had 4.5 percent of its schools on the list.

Eric J. Smith, Florida's education commissioner, has had a long career promoting AP and IB. His earlier work heading school districts in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina helped those states gain in college-level test participation. Long before Smith's arrival, Florida began giving more money to school districts and teachers whose students did well in college-level tests. The state also pays all student test fees for AP. Smith said next year college-level test results will become part of the system that assesses each school.

Merryl Tisch, the new chancellor of the New York state Board of Regents, said her state's success in promoting college preparation stems from New Yorkers' continued willingness to pay high local taxes for schools and the state's insistance that low-income students not have to pay the $86 per test AP fee. New York also allows students to avoid state regents exams in subjects in which they have taken AP or IB exams.

States like Maryland and Virginia whose students score above national averages on standardized tests sometimes have strong AP and IB programs, but often not. The spread of college-level course programs seems to depend on school-leader preferences and local traditions. Some high-scoring states, satisfied with their schools' reputations, do not promote AP or IB. Iowa, for instance, with some of the highest standardized-test scores in the country, was near the bottom in college-level test participation, with only 1.1 percent of its high schools on the NEWSWEEK list.

The lowest-ranking state, according to the analysis by NEWSWEEK editors, was Louisiana. Only 0.7 percent of its high schools were on the Top High Schools list, and only 0.6 percent of its students attended schools on the list.