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Frequently Asked Questions: 2014 Best High Schools Rankings

Here are answers to common questions about the U.S. News Best High Schools rankings.

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  1. What is the Best High Schools project and why did U.S. News & World Report create these rankings?  
  2. Was every public high school in the United States eligible to be evaluated as part of the rankings?
  3. Why were private high schools not ranked as part of the Best High Schools rankings?
  4. What were the sources of information that U.S. News used to calculate the 2014 Best High Schools rankings?
  5. What methodology was used to calculate the 2014 Best High Schools rankings? What role did the American Institutes for Research play in these rankings?
  6. How were schools evaluated using the three-step process? What data and/or indicators were used to identify the high schools?
  7. What distinguishes a gold medal high school from a silver or bronze medal school?
  8. Were there any changes to the rankings methodology used in the 2014 Best High Schools rankings?
  9. Did U.S. News publish any new rankings or other demographic information along with the 2014 Best High Schools rankings?
  10. Why did some schools' rankings change in the 2014 Best High Schools rankings when compared with the last rankings published in April 2013?
  11. How were the 2014 Best High Schools rankings in each state and the Best Magnet, Best Charter and Best STEM Schools rankings calculated? 
  12. Why is a school not listed or not ranked in the 2014 U.S. News Best High Schools rankings?
  13. Why did U.S. News list a school's AP or IB data even if that school did not win a gold or silver medal?
  14. How did U.S. News decide if a school was a charter or magnet school? Where did descriptive information about each high school come from?
  15. Why did one school in the same county rank lower on the 2014 U.S. News Best High Schools rankings than another school in the county that it outperforms on state tests in terms of the absolute level of results?
  16. Do the Best High Schools receive a reward?
  17. Whom should I contact if I have questions about the 2014 Best High Schools data, the current rankings or the rankings methodology?
  18. Whom should I contact if I have questions about my school's historical rank in the previous Best High Schools rankings?


1. What is the Best High Schools project and why did U.S. News & World Report create these rankings?

The Best High Schools project identifies the country's top-performing public high schools. The goal is to provide a clear, unbiased picture of how well public schools serve all of their students – from the highest achieving to the lowest achieving – in preparing them to demonstrate proficiency in basic skills as well as readiness for college-level work.

The first list of the U.S. News Best High Schools was posted online on Nov. 30, 2007. The next edition was posted online on Dec. 5, 2008. Subsequent editions were posted online on Dec. 10, 2009; May 8, 2012; and April 23, 2013. The current 2014 edition of Best High Schools was published online on April 22, 2014.

Since U.S. News & World Report's editors believe high schools are among America's most important institutions, adding the Best High Schools to its series was a natural progression. Education drives our country's future. Recognizing schools that are performing well and providing them as models to other schools will inspire educators and communities to do better.

Also, by sharing this information, parents across the country will be armed with information to help them make better-informed decisions about their child's education.

The 2014 Best High Schools rankings do not have an accompanying print guidebook; however, the rankings and data may be used in future U.S. News publications.

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2. Was every public high school in the United States eligible to be evaluated as part of the rankings?

Yes, all public high schools were eligible and nearly all were evaluated in the process of calculating the rankings. Under the U.S. News Best High Schools methodology, state test data were collected from state departments of education.

We analyzed 31,242 public high schools in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. That number was reduced to 19,411 that were eligible to be ranked. This is the total number of public high schools that had 12th-grade enrollment of 15 or greater and sufficient data from the 2011-2012 school year to be analyzed and eligible for the rankings.

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3. Why were private high schools not ranked as part of the Best High Schools rankings?

In almost all cases, students at private high schools across the country are not required to take the statewide accountability tests that are mandatory for U.S. public high schools. Since private schools do not have the state accountability testing data that U.S. News uses for the methodology of the Best High Schools rankings, they are not included in the 2014 rankings.

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4. What were the sources of information that U.S. News used to calculate the 2014 Best High Schools rankings?

There are a number of data sources used to produce the Best High Schools rankings:

The Common Core of Data is the U.S. Department of Education's website, updated annually, which contains basic data on enrollment, ethnicity and other profile information on all public high schools in the United States. The U.S. Department of Education collects the data found on this site directly from the schools themselves, school districts or state departments of education. The data used in the rankings are for the 2011-2012 school year.

College Board was the source of the Advanced Placement test data for each public high school, when applicable, that were used to create calculated values used in the rankings. The AP test data used in the analysis are for 12th-grade students in the 2011-2012 school year.

International Baccalaureate was the source of the International Baccalaureate test data for each public high school, when applicable, that were used to create calculated values used in the rankings. The IB test data used in the analysis are for 12th-grade students in the 2011-2012 school year.

• Each high school's statewide accountability proficiency test results were collected directly from official sources in that state. The statewide assessment test data are from the 2011-2012 school year.

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5. What methodology was used to calculate the 2014 Best High Schools rankings? What role did the American Institutes for Research play in these rankings?

The methodology for identifying the Best High Schools was developed with a core principle in mind: that the best schools must serve all students well and must produce measurable academic outcomes that support this mission.

To produce the 2014 Best High Schools rankings, which are available online only, U.S. News teamed up with the Washington, D.C.-based American Institutes for Research, one of the largest behavioral and social science research organizations in the world.

AIR implemented the U.S. News comprehensive rankings methodology, which reflects how well high schools serve all of their students, not just those who are planning to go to college. According to the U.S. News Best High Schools methodology, a Best High School is one that succeeds at the following steps.

Step 1: Attains performance levels that exceed statistical expectations given the school's relative level of student poverty, as measured by state accountability test scores for all the school's students in the core subjects of reading and math.

Step 2: Achieves proficiency rates on state tests for its least advantaged student groups – e.g., black, Hispanic and economically disadvantaged students – that exceed state averages.

Step 3: Prepares its students for college, as measured by student participation in and performance on Advanced Placement exams or International Baccalaureate exams.

Any individual AP or IB subject test was considered when determining if a student took or passed at least one test. 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, which measures the degree to which students are exposed to and pass some college-level material while in high school.

There were 15 gold medal winning high schools that achieved the maximum 100.0 CRI. In addition, there were instances in which gold or silver medal schools were tied based on their unrounded – carried out to many decimal places – CRI values. These CRI 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. This was used as the first tiebreaker since U.S. News weights performance on the AP and IB tests three times higher than the simple AP or IB test participation rate.

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

All tiebreakers used were unrounded values carried out to many decimal places.

For more information, see the short version of the U.S. News Best High Schools rankings methodology, or read the much longer and more detailed technical appendix produced by AIR.

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6. How were schools evaluated using the three-step process? What data and/or indicators were used to identify the high schools?

Analysts from AIR, who implemented the U.S. News comprehensive rankings methodology, used several indicators to determine which high schools met the three-step tiered criteria as outlined in the Best High Schools rankings methodology. These indicators include:

Step 1: Overall performance of students on state tests

Performance index for each high school in each state (all students)

An index that measures the mastery of state tests, with full credit awarded to proficient scores, additional credit awarded to more advanced scores and partial credit awarded to scores approaching proficient. This performance index was computed for each high school based on student performance on 2011-2012 state reading and mathematics assessments.

Economically disadvantaged students as a percent of total enrollment

A measure of student poverty, which is typically the percent of each high school's total enrollment receiving free or reduced-price lunch. This used federal data from the U.S. Department of Education's website.

Risk-adjusted performance index

Each high school's residual that measured the degree to which a high school differed from its statistically expected performance on reading and mathematics assessments, given the proportion of economically disadvantaged students, was used to establish a performance zone.

High schools with risk-adjusted performance index values at or above the upper threshold of the performance zone of one-half of a standard deviation were considered performing beyond expectations and passed Step 1, according to U.S. News, and advanced to Step 2.

Step 2: Identify high schools that performed better than the state average for their least advantaged students

Combined reading and mathematics proficiency rate for disadvantaged student subgroups for each high school

Reading and mathematics proficiency rate is a weighted average of the percentage of students for each group at or above the proficient level.

State average combined reading and mathematics proficiency rate for disadvantaged student subgroups

A weighted state average for the disadvantaged student subgroups was calculated using student subgroup performance across all high schools in the state.

Disadvantaged students performance gap differential

The differential between a school's disadvantaged student performance index and the state average for that index. Only values greater than or equal to zero meet the criteria for selection.

Values greater than or equal to zero indicated that a high school's disadvantaged student subgroups outperformed the state average. Values lower than zero meant that a high school's disadvantaged student subgroups performed worse than the state average.

High schools that do as well as or better than the state average

High schools with disadvantaged student subgroups that performed as well as or better than the state average advanced to Step 3. That is, all high schools that had a value of zero or higher for the disadvantaged student proficiency gap differential passed Step 2.

As with earlier versions of the Best High Schools rankings, high schools that passed Step 1 and did not have disadvantaged student subgroups automatically moved to Step 3.

Step 3: Performance on college-level Advanced Placement exams or International Baccalaureate exams to determine national gold, silver and bronze medal winners

AP or IB participation percent

The percentage of 12th-graders in 2011-2012 that took at least one AP or IB exam at some point during high school (the number of students AP or IB tested divided by the total number of 12th-graders enrolled).

Quality-adjusted AP or IB participation percent

The percentage of 12th-graders in 2011-2012 that took and passed at least one AP or IB exam at some point during high school (the number of students tested that received at least one score of 3 or higher on an AP test or 4 or higher on an IB test divided by number of 12th-graders enrolled).

College Readiness Index to determine gold, silver and bronze medal winners

An unrounded index to many decimal places – presented at one decimal place in the published rankings online – that measures the degree to which a school's students are exposed to, and pass, some college-level material (a weighted average of AP or IB participation, weighted at 25 percent of the CRI, and the quality-adjusted AP or IB participation rate, weighted at 75 percent of the CRI).

Only CRI values greater than 18.17 – the 2014 Best High Schools median CRI – meet the criteria for selection as gold and silver medal winners.

Gold medal high schools are simply the top 500 high schools that met this CRI criteria; the 1,519 schools ranked 501 through 2,019 – the silver medal schools – also met this CRI criteria. An additional 2,688 high schools that passed the first two steps in the methodology were awarded bronze medals and are listed alphabetically.

Quality-adjusted exams per test-taker

A quality-adjusted version of the above indicator, focusing solely on the number of AP or IB exams that receive passing scores and the students that took them.

It's calculated by taking the total number of AP or IB exams scoring 3 or above on AP or 4 or above on IB divided by the number of students scoring 3 or above on at least one AP exam or 4 or above on at least one IB exam. An unrounded version of this was used in order to break ties – which mainly occurred at the very top of the list, with CRIs that were equal to 100.0.

Exams per test-taker

A measure of the depth of AP or IB participation – the degree to which a school's students are exposed to more than one AP or IB subject – provided for additional context (the total number of AP or IB exams taken divided by the number of test-takers equals the average number of exams per test-taker).

For more information, see the short version of the U.S. News Best High Schools rankings methodology or the much longer and more detailed technical appendix produced by AIR.

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7. What distinguishes a gold medal high school from a silver or bronze medal school?

There are three levels of medal award winners. In total, U.S. News nationally ranked the 4,707 highest-scoring schools as gold, silver or bronze in the 2014 rankings.

• The first two levels include the top-performing high schools – gold and silver distinctions – which are schools that met all three criteria outlined above. These schools have been subdivided into gold and silver groups based on their College Readiness Index, which measures the degree to which students are exposed to and pass some college-level material while in high school.

• The third level includes schools that met state test performance criteria, but have not yet demonstrated high levels of measurable college readiness since their CRI is less than the CRI median or they don't offer AP or IB programs at all (bronze distinction).

The gold medal high schools are the top 500 high schools in the country, ranked numerically according to their unrounded CRI values.

The next group of 1,519 high schools with the highest unrounded College Readiness Indexes greater than or equal to 18.17 were numerically ranked from No. 501 through No. 2,019 and were the silver medal winners.

Only schools that had CRI values at or above 18.17, calculated on an unrounded basis to many decimal places, scored high enough to meet the criteria for gold and silver medal selection. The minimum of 18.17 was used because it's the median – the statistical midpoint, meaning that half of the schools are above this level and half are below this level – of all the CRI 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 2011-2012 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 used in the methodology and have a College Readiness Index at or above the median benchmark.

An additional 2,688 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 CRI was less than the median of 18.17 needed to be ranked silver.

Basically, a bronze medal high school did not meet all the requirements of Step 3 in the methodology. These schools have demonstrated commendable performance on their state tests, but did not perform well enough on the College Readiness Index to merit identification as a top-performing gold or silver medal high school. Either they have not provided as much access or any access to college-level AP or IB course work as their top-performing peers, or they offer an alternative program to AP or IB.

While AP and IB are the two most well-known programs in the country, there are schools that focus on providing students with access to alternative college-level programs, typically in the form of dual enrollment at local community colleges.

At present, there is no uniform set of data collected about participation in such programs. In addition, researchers have found that the quality of such existing programs varies significantly from school to school.

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8. Were there any changes to the rankings methodology used in the 2014 Best High Schools rankings?

U.S. News did not make any changes in the rankings methodology used in the 2014 Best High Schools rankings compared with the 2013 edition.

However, in the 2014 rankings there was a higher college readiness threshold used 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 ranking.

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 2014 rankings, we used achieving at or above the median College Readiness Index of 18.17 – versus 14.8 in the 2013 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 18.17, calculated on an unrounded basis to many decimal places, scored high enough to meet the criteria for gold and silver medal selection.

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9. Did U.S. News publish any new rankings or other demographic information along with the 2014 Best High Schools rankings?

U.S. News conducted a new state-by-state analysis of the 2014 Best High Schools based on the percent of each state’s eligible schools earning gold and silver medals. This ranking reflects which states are most successfully preparing students for college, based on students participating in and achieving passing scores on Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate tests. This year's state-by-state rankings covered all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

U.S. News also conducted a new demographic profile of the 4,707 gold, silver and bronze medal winners that breaks down the ranked schools in terms of poverty distribution, minority distribution, school structure and community environment.

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10. Why did some schools' rankings change in the 2014 Best High Schools rankings when compared with the last rankings published in April 2013? 

There are a number of possible reasons why high schools moved up or down or were no longer included in the 2014 Best High Schools rankings.

• Changes in relative performance on state tests: Some schools that were ranked in the 2013 Best High Schools rankings fell off the 2014 Best High Schools rankings list completely because they are no longer among the best-performing schools on their statewide tests – specifically, their overall student performance on state tests no longer exceeds statistical expectations (Step 1) or their least advantaged students' performance is not as good as the state average (Step 2).

Without successfully meeting both Steps 1 and 2 as described above, schools are not eligible for the national competition for a gold, silver or bronze medal and don't appear in the rankings.

• Changes in relative or absolute performance on college-level course work: Some schools may have moved either up or down in the rankings because of how the performance and participation of their 12th-grade class cohort on AP or IB exams compares with the performance of the class cohort from a year earlier.

The determination of college readiness is based upon the performance and participation of 12th-graders from the graduating class cohort in the most recent academic year – in this case, the 2011-2012 school year (i.e., whether or not these students took and passed any AP or IB exams during their years at the school, up to and including their senior year).

Many schools have experienced a change in their status, ranging from moving a few places in the gold medal rankings to changing medal status (from gold to silver, silver to bronze, bronze to gold or bronze to silver) due to changes in the level of a school's College Readiness Index.

Here's how the 2014 Best High Schools rankings compare to the 2013 rankings:

Of those that were gold in the 2013 rankings, 84 percent returned to the 2014 rankings as a gold, silver or bronze medal winner.

Of those that were silver in the 2013 rankings, 67 percent returned to the 2014 rankings as a gold, silver or bronze medal winner.

Of those that were bronze in the 2013 rankings, 56 percent returned to the 2014 rankings as a gold, silver or bronze medal winner.

These results show that the greatest year-to-year performance volatility was among high schools that were ranked bronze.

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11. How were the 2014 Best High Schools rankings in each state and the Best Magnet, Best Charter and Best STEM Schools rankings calculated? 

• 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 state 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.

• STEM rankings: To determine the top science, technology, engineering and math schools, U.S. News looked at the top 500 gold medal schools from the national rankings, and then evaluated their AP test-taking students' participation and success in AP science and math tests. Read the full STEM methodology.

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12. Why is a school not listed or not ranked in the 2014 U.S. News Best High Schools rankings?

All public high schools in United States with 15 or more students in 2011-2012 are listed on the Best High Schools website. Information on these 19,400-plus high schools is accessible online via the U.S. News high schools search function, the state rankings pages, districts pages and school profile pages.

Each individual school has three Web pages of descriptive data, including enrollment, ethnic and economic diversity data, detailed location information, state assessment test statistics and AP and/or IB data where applicable.

In terms of the rankings, 4,707 high schools scored high enough in all parts of the rankings methodology to win a gold, silver or bronze medal. That means that nearly 3 in 4 ranking-eligible U.S. high schools did not score high enough for a gold, silver or bronze medal.

If your school is not listed as a medal winner, that means that your school didn't score high enough in the methodology described above to receive a medal.

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13. Why did U.S. News list a school's AP or IB data even if that school did not win a gold or silver medal?

U.S. News published AP or IB data for all schools that had AP or IB programs in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., since all states authorized the College Board to supply us with their data. International Baccalaureate supplied the IB data directly to U.S. News.

We published the AP or IB data even if a school did not pass Step 1 and Step 2 in the methodology or have a College Readiness Index that was high enough to make it a gold or silver medal winner.

We thought it was very important to publish the calculated variables derived from the AP and IB testing information that was supplied. This will enable users of our website to compare all schools with AP and IB programs on the availability of these programs and on how their students performed in them.

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14. How did U.S. News decide if a school was a charter or magnet school? Where did descriptive information about the school come from?

U.S. News uses designations found on the Common Core of Data, the U.S. Department of Education's website, as the basis for those designations. U.S. News did not independently verify the data that was reported to the Department of Education by individual states, school systems or schools.

If the Common Core of Data site said that a school was a charter or magnet or had other descriptive information about the school, then that is the school-type designation and information that U.S. News went by. The Common Core of Data used was from the 2011-2012 school year.

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15. Why did one school in the same county rank lower on the 2014 U.S. News Best High Schools rankings than another school in the same county that it outperforms on state tests in terms of the absolute level of results?

The 2014 U.S. News Best High Schools rankings are based on more than just the absolute level of state test results. The rankings take into account the relative performance on state tests of students who are economically disadvantaged and minorities, not the absolute level.

This means that in some cases high schools that have not scored the absolute highest level on state assessment tests will do better in the 2014 U.S. News Best High Schools rankings than higher-scoring schools. Those lower-scoring schools on state assessment tests are actually doing better on their state tests when compared with other schools in their state with a similar level of economically disadvantaged students.

In addition, the Best High Schools rankings take into account how well students do on either the AP or IB tests, not just the proportion of students taking the tests and the number of tests they take.

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16. Do the Best High Schools receive a reward?

No monetary reward is associated with being named one of the U.S. News Best High Schools, but each gold, silver and bronze school will have its rankings, medal designation and data published online at usnews.com.

There are also many marketing opportunities through U.S. News. The 2014 Best High Schools badges can be downloaded for free for use on your school's website. For additional uses of the badge, such as in print, on plaques or on trophies, contact Wright's Media at usnews@wrightsmedia.com or 877-652-5295 or visit their high schools marketing page for additional information.

You may also visit our school marketing center for additional information.

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17. Whom should I contact if I have questions about the 2014 Best High Schools data, the current rankings or the rankings methodology?

Because of the large number of inquiries, parents and teachers should direct questions to school administrators. High school, school district or state education officials and administrators with specific questions about your current ranking, the accuracy of current data or why your school was ranked as it was in the current rankings should email such questions to official@usnews.com.

Please include details about the high school, including city, state and county; your title; your email address; and a link to a page from usnews.com that the school appears on. Please limit inquiries to one official representative per school or district.

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18. Whom should I contact if I have questions about my school's historical rank in the previous Best High Schools rankings?

High school or school district officials and administrators with specific questions about if or where your school or schools ranked in the two most recent U.S. News Best High Schools rankings, published in 2012 and 2013, should send these inquiries via email to Education-PR@usnews.com.

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