As it has in each of the last four years, Dallas ISD's School for the Talented and Gifted has been named the best high school in the country by U.S. News and World Report. The district's Science and Engineering Magnet, which shares the Yvonne A. Ewell Magnet Center building with the School for the Talented and Gifted, came in fourth.
The rankings, as they have been for a long time, are a win for the oft-maligned district. They should also be taken with a huge grain of salt.
While the criteria used by the magazine are laudable, they are also tailor-made to Dallas ISD's magnet school program. The first thing U.S. News looks at are schools' passing rates on statewide exams. The School for Talented and Gifted operates at an advantage because it handpicks its kids from a rigorous application progress. Chances are, the school isn't admitting any kid who has even the smallest chance of flunking one of Texas' low-bar statewide exams — passing Texas' Algebra or Biology exams requires that a student answer only 38 percent of the questions on the test correctly.
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The rankings reward both ethnic and economic diversity, something the School for the Talented and Gifted enforces through its admissions process, which allocates the majority of slots in its freshman classes to students based on the feeder pattern in which they grew up. Applicants only compete for admission with others who would have attended the same neighborhood high school they would have.
Finally, U.S. News looks at the graduation rate of the school — the School for the Talented and Gifted's, as you might imagine, is 100 percent — and the number of Advanced Placement tests taken and passed by students. At Dallas ISD's magnets, and especially at the School for the Talented and Gifted and the Science and Engineering Magnet, students take scores of AP Exams. School for the Talented and Gifted students, for example, are required to take at least 15 before they graduate. The School for the Talented and Gifted doesn't offer sports or anything approaching the typical Dallas ISD experience at a comprehensive high school. Lakewood's Woodrow Wilson — the district's top scoring traditional high school — came in at 1,742 in the rankings.
“There is not just one thing that makes our school great. The hard work and dedication that our students and teachers put in every day — combined with the strong support of our parents, greater community, and district leadership — all help make our school successful,” School for the Talented and Gifted principal Benjamin Mackey said in a statement. “It’s great to be recognized, but we will not rest on our laurels and we still have room to grow.”
(Full disclosure: I'm a proud graduate of the Science and Engineering Magnet.)