What Matters Most in Measuring

High schools are more than just places of learning.

A mural at the MATCH school in Boston.

High schools are more than just places of learning. They are often centers of community identity, activity, and sometimes, as we recently saw in Jena, La., conflict. But what makes a great high school? Americans think a lot of things do, from outstanding academics or a supportive environment for students to a great football or basketball team.

Still, pretty much everyone agrees teaching and learning are central to the mission. High schools are expected to prepare students for further education, work, or the military and eliminate the large gaps in achievement separating different ethnic and income groups of students.

These are sensible goals.

While there are many great high schools among the nearly 22,000 across the country, too many are still not getting the job done. Only about half of African-American and Hispanic students finish high school on time. Meanwhile, the National Assessment of Education Progress tests, often referred to as "the nation's report card," show significant achievement gaps separating white students from black and Hispanic high school students.

These are not small differences but rather cavernous gaps that squelch opportunity and tear at our nation's social contract. Leave aside the intrinsic value of being an educated citizen; there are practical effects as well. In 2005, the mean annual earnings were about $20,000 for a high school dropout but $54,000 for someone with a bachelor's degree. And those differences are growing wider, not lessening, as our economy becomes more knowledge and skills based. In 1975, a high school dropout earned about half as much as a college graduate, compared with about one third today.

Promise and challenge. This is why U.S. News set some clear criteria for academic quality in its new ranking of American high schools. To make the cut, schools have to provide a good education across their entire student body, not just for some students. And they must be preparing students for postsecondary opportunities.

These criteria mean a lot of schools don't measure up—only 505 schools nationwide earned a silver or gold medal this year. The list illustrates at once the promise and the challenge for high schools today. Only about 1 in 8 of the schools on this list serves a student population that is more than 50 percent low income, and only about 1 in 5 has a majority of nonwhite students. Meanwhile, about 1 in 5 selects students based on academic merit, something that obviously boosts the chances of meeting the criteria.

But we are a nation that always strives to do better, and the good news should galvanize us. There are many schools on this list that educators and policymakers can learn from. These include high-performing urban charter schools and traditional public schools that are providing their students with a great education in challenging circumstances.

Take for instance Boston's MATCH school, a gold medal school at No. 99. The school serves 200 students. More than 90 percent are black or Hispanic, and most live in poverty. They generally arrive at the school below grade level, yet every student in the first three graduating classes has gone to college. MATCH's formula isn't complicated, but it is hard work: great teachers and intensive instruction, including a full-time corps of tutors who live on the top floor of the school in order to be on call for students. Unconventional? Sure. But also effective and an example of how relentless some schools will have to be.

Until now, the most prominent ranking of American high schools was Newsweek's list of "best" high schools. Newsweek ranks high schools using a method based exclusively on Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate tests. Sara Mead and I have shown that Newsweek's measure of quality means that schools can be highly ranked even if they fail to provide a high-quality education to most of their students. And schools like MATCH do not make the list at all.

Because the U.S. News list uses more data to judge schools, it paints a clearer picture. Of course, no list is perfect. For instance, it is difficult to account for high school graduation rates because states calculate them in different ways. But this one better reflects what policymakers and parents want from high schools, as well as the challenge our nation faces to make our high schools as good as they need to be.