2021 | Schools

Bethesda’s Walt Whitman rated best high school in Maryland

Eight Montgomery County schools in top 25 on U.S. News & World Report list

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After a one-year hiatus, Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda was once again named Maryland’s top high school in the latest version of an annual list released by U.S. News & World Report.

Last year’s top school, Poolesville High, was No. 2 this year.

This year, eight Montgomery County schools ranked among the state’s top 25, and four were ranked in the top five.

None ranked in the top 100 nationally. Whitman was ranked 111th nationally, and four others were among the country’s top 500.

U.S. News says it uses six factors to determine school quality, including:

• graduation rates
• students’ performance on state tests in math and reading
• percentage of students who take and pass college-level courses
• overall performance of black, Hispanic and low-income students.

The data used in the rankings are from the 2018-19 academic year, unaffected by the COVID-19 pandemic that began in 2020, according to U.S. News & World Report.

The report compares more than 24,000 public high schools across the country. All 25 Montgomery County high schools included in the list were ranked in the top 9,000 nationwide.

Montgomery County schools in the state’s top 25 were:

• Walt Whitman High, 1
• Poolesville High, 2
• Thomas S. Wootton, 4
• Winston Churchill, 5
• Walter Johnson, 11
• Bethesda-Chevy Chase, 13
• Richard Montgomery, 18
• Northwest, 25

For years, education advocates have disputed lists that rank schools, arguing that the lists do not provide an accurate or holistic picture of the schools because they rely heavily on test scores. They generally don’t measure how those schools serve students with more complex needs or inclusivity, and the “best” schools are often in more affluent areas or lack diversity, advocates have said.

For example, the top ranked high school in the country is Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Virginia, a highly regarded magnet school. Thomas Jefferson was also ranked No. 1 in last year’s list.

The school has an enrollment that is about 72% Asian and 19% white, according to school district data, and has been criticized recently for a lack of diversity.

The school board voted last year to eliminate the entrance exam and adopted a new admissions plan, in an effort to increase diversity, according to Education Week. A group representing Asian-American parents has filed a lawsuit challenging the change.

In 2019, Walt Whitman High School was named the top high school in Maryland the same day police confirmed they were investigating a picture posted to social media by two students in blackface as a bias incident.

Community members said at the time that the incident illustrated how the rankings list fails to capture and measure all of the important key elements of education, including school culture.

A press release from U.S. News this week said the organization “revamped” its ranking methodology in 2019 to use “far more comprehensive criteria.”

In a document explaining the demographic breakdown of nationally ranked schools, U.S. News said nearly half of all schools had an enrollment of at least 25% Black or Hispanic students.

About one-third of all ranked schools receive federal Title I funding, distributed to schools with high proportions of students in low-income households.

Wootton High was ranked the 46th best science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) school. Poolesville High was 80th.

Poolesville was ranked No. 38 on the list of best magnet schools in the country. Richard Montgomery was No. 137.

Montgomery County schools and their state and national rankings are:

• Walt Whitman High: 1st in state; 111th nationally
• Poolesville High: 2; 119
• Thomas S. Wootton: 4; 179
• Winston Churchill: 5; 308
• Walter Johnson: 11; 453
• Bethesda-Chevy Chase: 13; 569
• Richard Montgomery: 18; 755
• Northwest: 25; 980
• Springbrook: 30; 1,447
• Wheaton: 39; 1,815
• Damascus: 42; 1,950
• Paint Branch: 44; 2,065
• Montgomery Blair: 49; 2,269
• James Hubert Blake: 52; 2,391
• Clarksburg: 57; 2,619
• Rockville: 59; 2,745
• Quince Orchard: 61; 2,796
• Sherwood: 64; 2,871
• Col. Zadok Magruder: 71; 3,291
• Albert Einstein: 78; 3,522
• Northwood: 81; 3,819
• Gaithersburg: 118; 7,329
• John F. Kennedy: 119; 7,438
• Watkins Mill: 129; 8,047
• Seneca Valley: 137; 8,580
Thomas Edison High School of Technology was not included in the rankings.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com