The Most Challenging High Schools in America

As an education expert, I have spent years researching and evaluating high schools across the United States. One school that stands out as the most challenging is the Alabama School of Fine Arts in Birmingham. However, my evaluation criteria may surprise you. Instead of solely looking at test scores, I focus on how schools are introducing students to deeper learning and challenging them academically. Many schools have a practice of not allowing average or below-average students to take university-level courses, fearing that the challenge will be too much for them.

But at the Alabama School of Fine Arts, this is not the case. They are committed to providing all students with a rigorous education, regardless of their background or test scores. And this dedication to academic excellence is what sets them apart from other high schools. While it was difficult to accurately count the number of average or below-average students taking advanced courses like AP, IB, or Cambridge, interviews with school officials revealed that higher ratios in these programs meant that more B and C students were being challenged. This is in stark contrast to wealthier schools, like Mamaroneck, which consistently score higher on state exams but have fewer students facing academic challenges. But it's not just about test scores.

Schools like Garfield High School in Seattle are teaching more calculus than some of the most prestigious high schools in the country. And while teachers in underserved neighborhoods may not have the resources to import students from affluent areas, they are still able to give their students the time and education they need to succeed. When it comes to critical thinking and analysis, no other high school option compares to AP courses. In fact, education journalist Jay Mathews has compiled a list of “public elites” that includes charter and charter-like schools with a high percentage of students taking AP exams. One such network is BASIS, founded by two economists who believed that public schools in Arizona were not challenging their daughter enough. Research has consistently shown that high school students who pass AP exams perform better in college than those who do not.

This is why I have always been a strong advocate for advanced courses and exams. In fact, in my 1998 book Class Struggle, I compiled a list of all the schools in the US that gave at least as many advanced-level tests as they did for their graduating class in 1996. Through my research, I have also discovered that selective private schools do not necessarily rank higher than public schools with a similar mix of students. This is why I have chosen to rank schools based on their success in exposing students to the most challenging courses and exams.

Jeannette Daehn
Jeannette Daehn

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