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How to Ensure your High School is Rated Among the Highest Regardless of Zip Code


High School Rankings unveiled with US News rankings versus zip codes

Best Schools Update 2024

“Above all, I believe every child, no matter their ZIP code or their parents' jobs, deserves access to a quality education.” - Betsy DeVos 2016 
“A child's course in life should be determined not by the zip code she's born in” - Barack Obama
“Literally nothing is evenly distributed by zip code, except having a zip code.”  - Elon Musk

Part I: Rankings v. Zip Codes

“All children should have a great education regardless of zip code,” is perhaps one of the most repeated mantras in education. MAGA and “Woke” policy makers, Ed leaders, and billionaires often repeat it from speech to speech, almost as a litany and as prima facie evidence they are not racist or classist.

It is that time of year. US News annual Best Schools report is the most well known rating and ranking report on schools, meant to tell us how we are meeting the “no matter what zip code, metric.” Their 2024 Best High Schools in America came out April 23rd and winners are bragging. School critics are blaming. Those whose place dropped are rationalizing, and the real estate industry is redrawing their target markets. 

The original annual rating and ranking system was “Jay Mathews’ Challenge Index" which was published by Newsweek and the Washington Post. It started in 1998 about the same time standardized testing was taking hold as the panacea for all problems in education. The model has become so popular, ratings have become an industry, with US News, Forbes, Scholaroo, EdWeek, Niche, Great Schools, the CATO institute, and others joining the rating game. 

These ratings have come to drive company relocations, local home buying markets, and be used as political shorthand about state political administrations. But what do these rankings really tell us about our schools, and how do you get to be a “best school?”

Three things you need to know to make your school a top ranking school

  1. 40 percent of the ranking is based on Advance Placement and IB (World school) test numbers (taken and/or passed) 

  2. 50 percent of the ranking is based on state standards tests. In Virginia that is Standards Of Learning (SOLs) In other states it may be the PARCC or one of several commercial test options.

  3. 10 percent of the score is based on how many students graduate in 4 years. 


Wait! You mean this ranking is not based on how safe, healthy, and positive the physical plant and atmosphere is?

  • Or how highly educated, innovative, or experienced their teachers are? 

  • On how many electives or career courses a school offers?

  • Or how extensive their arts programs, plays, art shows and music concerts are? 

  • How many sports do they offer, or teams go to regionals? 

  • Or how many of their students go on to highly successful careers? Or creative lives?

  • Or how welcoming and supportive they are for each unique learner? 


Nope. None of the above count at all.

This whole national competition is based on a set of tests? Whether it be US News, or one of the other brands, they are based on national or state level tests. At the bottom is always a test. (Niche offers the added opportunity to load up the system with positive reviews, much like a yelp review for your favorite restaurant). 

In US News’ case, they are based on six categories. Two of the categories measure AP and IB tests, two are based on state assessments (SOLs) , and one category based on on-time graduation rates.

The Advanced Placement tests are produced by College Boards (the SAT company which makes $1.1 billion dollars a year off their testing services). The International Baccalaureate program and tests are run by the International Baccalaureate Organization, the more internationally oriented version of Advanced Placement. 

Both programs are based on the idea that students in high school can and should be doing college level work and should get credit for it when they go on to college, though students don’t always get that college credit. Both programs can cost a substantial amount of money, depending on how many AP/IB courses you offer and how many tests each student takes. 

So, these rankings are basically a promotion of the idea that giving more kids harder tests is what makes a good school? Well, yes. 

So more and harder tests reflect better instruction? Maybe, in some cases, but not necessarily if you are valuing skills based learning, or problem solving, or social-emotional health. 

So, if we want our local school district to be ranked highly,

  1. We buy and make sure every student takes at least one AP test or IB Test, and push them to take more than one.

  2. In regular classes, we research what will be on this year’s state test and teach directly to the test. 

  3. We try to minimize the number of students who need more than 4 years to complete the graduation requirements. 


Problem Solved. Right? Or do we want to create schools that measure something else?


Here are the schools and areas that get penalized. 

1. Schools where funding limits offering AP and IB classes. For rural schools and particularly small districts, or higher poverty districts, the cost of offering large numbers of AP or IB courses can be prohibitive or just plain irrelevant, especially for areas that are in University deserts two hours from a four year college. Every test has a fee, and every course requires different text books and equipment. Every instructor is required to have specialty training in their course philosophy and approach which often includes travel costs in addition to the training fees. If your students do not have convenient access to Universities or higher paying jobs, AP and IB courses can seem a waste of precious dollars. 

2. Schools where larger percentages of English Language Learners or neurodivergent students study. English language learners average 3 years prior to reaching fluency. Offering AP or IB courses can be just out of their time-line. Also, both ELL and Special Education students are given extra years to graduate, but in the ratings system, taking those years to graduate more prepared is penalized. Does that support make them worse schools or better schools? 

As a state, Virginia has fared well in this caldron of competition, with its K-12 public schools ranking in the top 5 consistently with various publishers before the current administration, and ranking 7th through 13th this year. But what does that mean for individual schools or students?

Part II: Does a Zip Code really make a difference?

Back to the zip code question. 

“Don’t let anyone tell you that standardized tests are not accurate measures. The truth of the matter is they offer a remarkably precise method for gauging the size of the houses near the school where the test was administered.” - Alfie Kohn

Is that true? Below is a study of zip codes, median home prices, and median incomes based on 2022 prices and salaries. See Take Aways after the zip codes listings for a summary of Part II information.

The Top Schools

According to WTOP in 2022, of the top 50 schools nationwide, 25 of the top 50 were some form of magnet, gifted and talented, or specialty admission schools that recruited and accepted students from varied zip codes. 

In Virginia, Fairfax has more than once occupied 7 of the top 10 state spots in US News rankings.

Some of the other rating brands have mostly Loudoun County schools in the top ten. Of note, according to AI, Loudoun County is now the most affluent county in the nation with a $170,463 median household income, with Falls Church and Fairfax coming in second and third. See Part II of this article for a more detailed analysis of those zip codes. 

Of the schools ranked in the top ten, Thomas Jefferson, Open High School. and Richmond Community High School are specialty schools with competitive application processes that serve a wider area than a cluster of neighborhood zip codes. 

The remaining top seven are public neighborhood schools that occupy a crescent of zip codes around the western edge of Fairfax County and Falls Church in which median house prices are $625K to $2.2 million and up. See the drop down for more information about houses in these zip codes.

An evaluation of Langley, McLean, Madison, Marshall, Meridian, Oakton, and West Springfield zip codes


The Bottom Ranked Schools: 263 to 320

Of the 320 high schools that US News ranked in Virginia, the lowest 57 schools were lumped together and listed in alphabetical order. So looking at them in firmly ranked order is not possible, but we can see their general characteristics and do some comparisons by looking at a few schools from varied parts of the state. 

Alleghany High School occupies the far western edge of the state, and is about central north to south. Brunswick sits along the central southern border, and Booker T. Washington is in Norfolk on the southeastern side of the state. Two of the three are majority Black schools, but overall there are numerous majority white schools among the 57 in this tier. 

See the drop down for more information about houses in zip codes associated with the bottom ranked 57 schools.

An analysis of homes associated with the bottom-ranked schools' zip codes around Virginia


Take Aways

So, what do we learn when we look at the zip codes of the highest ranking and lowest ranking schools in Virginia? 

Large suburban schools serving highly affluent communities tend to value college preparation courses and can afford to pay for them. Costs, like IB/AB program coordinators, instructor trainings, and registration, testing fees of $96-116 per test, though costly, are not prohibitive for them. 

Smaller schools that serve large geographic areas and lower income economies are less likely to spend the dollars and curriculum emphasis to tailor their programs to advanced college preparation. 

A few last data points that are seldom reported in connection to the choices: 

  • Broadband speeds and access in Northern Virginia is substantially higher (200mb-1G) as opposed to Covington and Lawrenceville at 100-200 mbps. Norfolk is the exception with high speed access due to proximity to military installations. Among other 320-263 districts broadband is still an issue and under construction. 

  • The under 18 years poverty levels for all three 320-263 schools are 11-31% while the poverty levels for the NoVA zips are between 2.1-3.3% Parents who make $30K a year are less likely to spend $96 on a course test fee than those making $220K a year. 

  • The cost of the AP/IB programs US News measures is significant. They require registration fees, professional coordinator staff, and instructor professional development, all of which costs the schools money. There is a per student registration fee and unless the school picks up the tab students pay between $96-$116 per test. Support for those costs across the state are not consistent, and application for subsidies is not always easy. For a school strapped for budget, to meet the number of required tests to attain ranking can be cost prohibitive. 


It seems that US News “High School Rankings” does measure some things accurately, or as Alfie Kohn put it, “the size of the houses near the school where the test was administered.” 

It is clear that the top seven Fairfax County schools are doing a magnificent job of challenging their students to perform well on high stakes tests. Besides all the advanced academics, they also provide substantial enrichment opportunities for students. Their academic quality is not in question. 

However, looking at the websites of the 320-263 schools, there are some remarkable programs and efforts by the local parents and school employees across these 57 districts to provide exceptional and high quality instruction and opportunities. There are many schools that have advanced academics programs, almost all have multiple career programs, and numbers of enrichment activities; schools whose students are winning state awards and accolades. Those data points are not measured under a ranking system that looks only at test scores and graduation rates.

Which brings us to the question: If as they say, we measure what we value, what are we really measuring? And what do we really value? 

As Lani Guinier put it:

“The increasing reliance on standardized test scores as a status placement in society has created something alien to the very values of our democratic society yet seemingly with a life of its own: a testocracy.”

Additional Credits: 

Photos and Median Home prices are from realtor.com

Poverty and median household income statistics are from census.gov

Testing percentages and rankings are from US News



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