Not too surprising to see this finding in the latest U.S. News ranking of the "best public high schools" in Tennessee. And it is not all that surprising that perennial "best" Memphis high school, White Station, is not in the Top Ten. The reason is that White Station is an optional school with a de facto college-prep school within a school. For the top academic students, including 22 National Merit Semifinalists in 2011, there are Advanced Placement and Honors courses that are not taken by the majority of students.
No Memphis school made the Top Ten. Two Shelby County high schools — Houston and Collierville — did make the list.
The top two schools in the state, according to this particular ranking, are academic magnet schools in Nashville. Each one has about 1,000 students. The rest of the Top Ten are in Knoxville, Johnson City or near Nashville — all communities with close college connections. The only schools that do not seem to fit the mold are in Kingsport, where 40 percent of seniors were deemed "not proficient" in math, and Oak Ridge, where 50 percent were not proficient in math.
I cross referenced the Top Ten with their average composite ACT scores on the Tennessee Report Card. The ACT, of course, is the standard college entrance exam in Tennessee. As I expected, the scores were in the 23-27 range, well above the Tennessee average of 19. The University of Tennessee-Knoxville, by the way, boasts that its 2011 freshman class had an average ACT of 26.7. Houston, Collierville, and White Station each had a score of 23 and a fraction.
The way to achieve a high overall score is not so much to have, say, 22 students who make a 33-36 as it is to not factor in students who make a score in the teens. That's the "secret" of success to academic magnet schools. The only all-optional school by academics in Memphis is John P. Freeman.
Here is a description of the admissions policy for top-ranked Hume Fogg Academic Magnet school in Nashville as posted on its website: "The 848 students attending Hume-Fogg were selected county-wide from students with total reading and mathematics stanine scores each averaging 7 or above and an academic grade point average of at least 85 (B) with no failing grades. Sixty-six percent of students who apply as eighth graders are admitted to the school. Hume-Fogg students come from diverse cultural, economic, and ethnic backgrounds. Students represent 39 of 45 zip code areas in the Metropolitan area. Hume-Fogg has 44 faculty members; of these, 39 hold an advanced degree."
And here is the admissions policy for the "second best" school, Martin Luther King Academic Magnet School: "Students normally enter MLK at grades 7 and 9, but there are occasional exceptions. They must meet academic eligibility requirements before being selected by lottery. Total reading and total mathematics stanine scores must average 7 or above, and their academic grade-point average must be at least 85 (B) with no failing grades. The MLK student is representative of the top 10-15 percent of students in the Metropolitan-Nashville Public Schools."
The criteria that U.S. News and World Report used are weighted toward college readiness as measured by the percentage of students who took and passed Advanced Placement exams. There is no all-optional college prep high school in Memphis. Houston and Collierville have a higher percentage of graduates who go to college than White Station.
But that does not mean White Station doesn't offer rigorous college prep courses to a minority of its students, as evidenced by its having the most National Merit Semifinalists of any public or private high school in Shelby County. In the minds of those students and their parents, at least, White Station is one of the best high schools in Tennessee, period.