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Four Federal Way High Schools Make Repeat Appearance on the Washington Post’s High School Challenge List

For the second year in a row, Decatur, Todd Beamer, Thomas Jefferson and Federal Way High Schools have all made The High School Challenge list sponsored by The Washington Post.

Previously known as Newsweek’s annual list of America’s Best High Schools, The High School Challenge ranks schools by the number of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or Cambridge tests given by the school in 2011, divided by the number of graduating seniors.

Schools must achieve a ratio of at least 1.000 to be on the list, meaning that they had as many tests in a given year as they had graduates. In 2012, some 1,900 high schools nationwide – just nine percent of the approximately 22,000 public schools in the United States — made the Washington Post list.

“This school district, the community, our teachers, our educators, our parents and our students have risen to the challenge of high academic expectations,” Superintendent Rob Neu said. “The High School Challenge results reflect our deep belief in the ability of every student to learn at high levels.”

Among the 30 Washington state schools on the list, Federal Way High School came in at number 7, Decatur at number 16, Thomas Jefferson at 26 and Todd Beamer at 27. This is Todd Beamer and Decatur’s second year on the list, FWHS’ third year and Thomas Jefferson’s fourth.

FWHS had the highest percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced lunch, 56 percent, of the Washington state schools on the list. Only one other Washington school approached that figure – North Central in Spokane. And out of the remaining 28 schools on the Washington list, the schools with the highest free and reduced lunch rates were Thomas Jefferson with 42 percent, Decatur with nearly 39 percent and Beamer with 38 percent.

Why Are Schools Ranked By the Number of Students Taking Advanced Tests Instead of Test Scores?

Jay Mathews, the education columnist who devised The High School Challenge, notes that simply taking advanced courses and tests is important because it gives average students a chance to experience college-level reading lists and long analytical college exams. “Research has found that even low-performing students who got only a 2 on an AP test did significantly better in college than similar students who did not take AP,” Mathews writes.

He adds that the Post also give readers a sense of how well each school’s students are doing on the tests by posting the Equity and Excellence rate. This is the percentage of all graduating seniors, including those who have never taken an AP course, who scored a 3 or above on at least one AP test sometime in high school.

Federal Way High School is in the top 2 percent in the nation on the Equity and Excellence scale, Decatur is in the top 4 percent, and Thomas Jefferson and Todd Beamer are in the top 8 percent, Assistant Superintendent of Teaching for Learning Josh Garcia noted.

Federal Way’s Pursuit of College Readiness for All Students

In 2001, Federal Way Public Schools’ Equity and Achievement office confirmed that one of the issues impacting under-represented students’ acceptance into college, and success once there, was that they lacked a history of taking Advanced Placement and other college preparatory classes. Further investigation showed that they often hadn’t taken challenging classes in middle school and in their 9th and 10th grade years, which would have prepared them for the rigors of Advanced Placement classes in 11th and 12th grade and college afterward.

The district has undertaken several initiatives in recent years to give all students a rigorous and meaningful education. One of those, the Academic Acceleration Program, was implemented at the beginning of the 2010-2011 school year. It mandates that all FWPS students who meet standards on state and internal assessments will be automatically enrolled in Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, Cambridge and Honors classes. Federal Way implemented the policy to ensure that all students who are up to the demands of rigorous classes take them and thereby reap the benefits.

In his comments to board members at the May 22, 2012, board meeting, Superintendent Neu said, “I want to applaud this school district, the people sitting in this room, the educators who have wrestled with academic acceleration and the students.  (It’s) because this district had the courage to say to those students that you belong, we have a place for you.”

This fall, Federal Way Public Schools will roll out another innovative program to make sure that all students in the district have the opportunity to go to college or get other post-high school training, and to be successful once there. The district has been working with the CollegeBoard, the organization responsible for Advanced Placement courses, to implement their “College Readiness Pathway,” an integrated series of assessments designed for 8th through 12th graders.

Note: The Washington Post may continue to fine-tune their data and list of top schools. As a result, the specific rankings may change slightly as some schools are added and others are removed from the list. Because the Post does not notify districts directly of changes in the rankings, readers should go to their website,, for the most current rankings.

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