Because high schools are the last stop before a young person goes to college or into the job market, many parents worry about finding the best fit for their children; viewing a high-quality education as the first step toward a rewarding career.
In the Richmond metro area, there are more than 30 public high schools of widely varying quality. For parents, evaluating their local schools has become so complex. There are plenty of statistics — scores, percentages and rankings — and it's not always clear what they mean. In the next few pages, we've tried to make sense of all the statistics for you by picking out, after careful consideration, the ones that appear to be the best indicators of a high-quality education and clarifying their meaning.
From first to 12th grades, school curriculums in the Richmond area are based on SOLs — the Standards of Learning tests in English, math, science and social studies — because the percentage of students who pass them determines whether or not schools are accredited by the state. Teachers are trained to teach not only SOL content but also testing strategies.
But the number of students who simply pass the SOLs is not necessarily a useful measure of the quality of schools, because students can get very low scores — as low as 50 percent — and still receive a "pass/proficient" designation. More significant, many educators say, is the percentage of students who receive "pass/advanced" status because that indicates they scored the equivalent of at least 90 percent on the test. Thus, we've included "pass/proficient" and "pass/advanced" percentages on our chart.
SAT tests are among the few uniform, national measures of student achievement, which is why they're important. Everyone in the country taking the SATs takes them at the same time during any given year.
Though there's continual debate about the value and fairness of the SATs, they're still widely used as criteria for acceptance at a majority of U.S. universities and colleges. Students take SATs in three subjects — critical reading, writing and math. The tests are scored on a scale of 200 to 800, and a student's individual scores are measured against national scores. In addition to math and critical-reading test scores, we included on our chart the percentage of students who took SATs, because it indicates how many students at that school plan to attend college.
International Baccalaureate (IB) Program
Not just any school can award an IB diploma. In fact, schools must meet a rigorous set of criteria and be certified by the international body that then awards IB degrees to qualifying students. Increasingly, top U.S. high schools are adopting IB programs because such degrees are recognized all over the world and at top universities here and abroad. An IB diploma means something to the Sorbonne in Paris as well as to the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech.
Advanced Placement (AP) Program
Newsweek bases its entire Best High Schools ranking on the number of Advanced Placement, IB and Cambridge (AICE) tests given at schools. The rationale: If students are prepared to take those tests, they're also prepared for the rigors of college. Plus, taking advanced courses helps students get into the top universities and colleges. Since student populations vary, we included not the number of tests taken but the percentage of students who have taken them.
In the old days, many employers were happy to hire and then train young people with promise. Nowadays, they prefer to hire a sure thing, entry-level employees who already know how to do their jobs. Meanwhile, more students like to get the jump on advanced educational requirements for certain college degrees. Specialty centers in some Richmond-area school districts fill this need. Focusing on a particular discipline, such as math and science or government and leadership, these schools within schools draw motivated, advanced students who have to apply for admission.
Accredited and AMO (Annual Measurable Objectives)
The next two categories are standards on the Virginia Department of Education's (VDOE) annual School Report Cards. Schools are accredited by the state if at least 70 percent of their students pass their SOL tests. The federal benchmarks — Annual Measurable Objectives (AMOs) — are more complex. According to the VDOE, "The AMOs were determined using a formula based on the federal law and student-achievement data from the state's assessment program." The AMO is a measure of whether schools are making progress toward students' proficiency in English language arts and math, and it also takes things such as graduation rates into account. Both measures apply fairly minimal standards, so if your school is not accredited or making AYP, you should probably try to find out what's going on.
Regional Governor's Schools
Omitted from this chart are two of the Richmond region's best schools — Appomattox Regional Governor's School in Petersburg and Maggie L. Walker Governor's School in the city of Richmond. Technically, they are not schools, but state programs for gifted and talented students drawn from districts throughout the region. Both schools require students to apply; both offer accelerated college preparatory classes and both offer diplomas, but because of their status as programs they are not ranked nationally by Newsweek magazine.