By Jay Mathews, Newsweek education writer Newsweek picks the best high schools in the country every year, based on how hard school staffs work to challenge students with college-level courses and tests. Only 6 percent of all the public schools in the U.S. -- about 1,600 -- made this year’s America’s Best High School list To read the full list on Newsweek.com, click here. A ranking like this always sparks debate over how to measure school quality — and that’s a good thing. Here are three of the most common questions about the list and what it means for average families. 1. What if my local high school is not on Newsweek’s list? Just because a school isn’t on the list doesn’t mean it’s sub par. There are lots of ways to measure a school’s quality. But if you want to see how your school measures up according to the Newsweek Challenge Index, all you have to do is ask for two numbers from your school and do a little arithmetic. The rating for each school is calculated by taking the total number of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or Cambridge tests given last year and dividing by the number of last year’s graduating seniors. We count all AP, IB or Cambridge tests, not just those taken by seniors. Any school that achieves a ratio of 1.000 or above, meaning it had at least as many college-level tests as graduating seniors, makes the list. If you calculate your high school’s rating and it does not come close to 1.000, you might start a discussion of why that is, and what should be done about it. If your school only allows top students to take AP classes, you might suggest the principal look at the data on what challenging courses can do for average students.
2. Why is the quality of a high school related to the number of college-level classes it offers? Aren’t regular classes challenging enough? Several studies have shown that a student who takes a college-level Advanced Placement course and passes the AP exam tends to do better in college than a student who has not taken AP. Some studies indicate that even a student who works hard but does not get a passing score tends to have more success in college than non-AP students. Academic standards in high schools that emphasize college-challenges often rise, inspired by the need to prepare students for Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams created and graded not by the school's teachers, but by outside experts. 3. Aren’t high school kids stressed out enough without asking them to take college-level classes? The average U.S. high-schooler does less than an hour of homework a night and spends twice as much time watching TV. And this shows in their academic achievements. There has been no significant increase in average reading or math achievement for American 17-year-olds in the last three decades. If AP, IB and other college-level classes can get more of this age group off the sofa and back to their books, it would be a step forward for the country and a good measure of which schools are really serious about academics. Now it’s your turn, what do you think is the best measure of school quality? Leave your thoughts in the comments. To see the complete list of America’s Best High Schools and a FAQ on how the list was compiled, click here. And, to read profiles of the top 20 high schools on our list, click here. Jay Mathews is Newsweek’s education expert and a columnist for the Washington Post.