10 most rigorous high schools in the U.S. ranked in ‘Challenge Index’

The Washington Post's "Challenge Index" rankings of academic rigor is not based on standardized test scores
By: | May 23, 2022
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Being economically challenged does not prevent students at IDEA McAllen College Prep, a small charter near the Mexican border in Texas, from having access to a challenging curriculum. In fact, it may be the most challenging curriculum in the U.S., as measured by The Washington Post’s Challenge Index” rankings of academic rigor.

The index is not based on standardized test scores, which Jay Mathews, the columnist who assembles these rankings, says “are more a measure of student family income than school quality.” The list, which compares public and private schools, is based on a very specific formula: the number of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or Cambridge tests given at a school each year, divided by the number of seniors who graduated. That means schools ranked no. 220 or above are in the top 1% of the nation’s 22,000 high schools.

The top 10 is dominated by charter schools from a pair of networks in Texas and Arizona. The top public school on the list is at No. 3, Carnegie Vanguard High School, which is part of Houston ISD in Texas. “The list is designed to recognize schools that challenge average students,” Mathews says on his website.


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Scoring well on the AP, IB and Cambridge tests—which is linked to college success—serves as a better measure of the depth of students’ knowledge because the exams are designed and graded by experts and cannot be altered by district educators, Mathews says.

At IDEA McAllen, ninth-graders are required to take three AP courses. Students must take 11 AP courses and exams to graduate. Juniors enroll in the International Baccalaureate program while still taking AP classes, Mathews said in Sunday’s column on the index.

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Here are the top 10 in the Challenge Index:

  1. IDEA McAllen (charter), McAllen, Texas
  2. Signature School(charter), Evansville, Indiana
  3. Carnegie Vanguard High School, Houston ISD, Texas
  4. Young Women’s Preparatory Academy (magnet), Miami-Dade County Public Schools, Florida
  5. IDEA Pharr (charter), Pharr, Texas
  6. IDEA San Juan (charter), San Juan, Texas
  7. IDEA Frontier (charter), Brownsville, Texas
  8. BASIS Mesa (charter), Mesa, Arizona
  9. BASIS Peoria (charter), Peoria, Arizona
  10. Stanton College Prep, Duval County Public Schools, Florida

The index ranks the top 300 schools. Mathews has also compiled a list of “Public Elites” to rate magnet or charter schools that have few or no average students. These are non-neighborhood schools where the average SAT or ACT scores are above the highest averages for neighborhood schools, Mathews says.