If you ask any real estate agent about what sells houses, schools will be at the top of the list. With good reason, parents view a high-quality education as the first step toward the rewarding careers they want their children to have. In particular, parents worry about high schools, because they're the last stop before college or the job market.
In the Richmond metro area, there are more than 30 public high schools of widely varying quality. Many are great, but some are mediocre at best. For parents, figuring out how their local schools stack up is difficult, because evaluating education 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 takes the same SAT tests 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 most major 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. For example, if you got a little more than 500 on your critical-reading test, you scored in the average range compared to the other students who took it. 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 or IB Program
Not just any school can award an IB diploma. Schools must meet criteria that authorize them to award IB degrees. Increasingly, top U.S. high schools are adopting IB programs because they are recognized all over the world. An IB diploma means something to the Sorbonne in Paris as well as to the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech. Although most schools in the Richmond region do not have IB programs, we've included them because they're a mark of excellence.
Advanced Placement or 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 hire entry-level employees who already know how to do their jobs. That requires students to decide or at least work toward a specific career at an early age — hence the specialty centers in some Richmond-area school districts. 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 AYP
(Adequate Yearly Progress)
The next two categories are standards on the Virginia Department of Education's (DOE) annual Report Cards. Schools are accredited if at least 70 percent of their students pass their SOL tests. AYP is a measure of whether the school has made progress toward the "No Child Left Behind" goals initiated by the administration of former President George W. Bush. Both are 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. Both require students to apply; both offer accelerated college preparatory classes.
Newsweek magazine excludes Maggie Walker from its best high schools ranking, because of the students' "stratospheric" SAT scores, which indicate that most, if not all of them, are intellectually advanced. For the 2010-2011 academic year, Maggie Walker's college-bound seniors scored an average of 699 on the critical-reading portion of the SAT and 680 on the math test, according to Richmond Public Schools. Focused on arts and technology, Appomattox students scored an average of 586 on critical reading and 531 on math.
This article was originally published in Sourcebook 2011 and was updated to include current information.