05/17/2013 01:33 pm ET Updated Jul 17, 2013

How High Schools Win the Gold Medal in Academic Performance

By Tim Hodges and Shane J. Lopez

U.S. News & World Report recently teamed up with the American Institutes for Research (AIR) -- a behavioral and social science research organization -- to find out which high schools are the best in America, ranking them gold, silver, or bronze. They based their rankings on two widely accepted success measures:

1.Academic performance on state assessments in reading and mathematics, and
2.College readiness, as determined by participation in and performance on Advanced Placement examinations.

As these rankings grab the attention of America's parents, educators, and policymakers, Gallup is studying the leading indicators of high school rankings and the predictors of high school student success. Gallup's study of Maryland's Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) finds that, in the district's high schools that are filled with students who have high hope for the future, these schools are also in the gold level on the U.S. News & World Report's high school rankings. The high schools in the district with the highest levels of student engagement are also more likely to rank in the top level in the U.S. News & World Report's rankings for academic success and college readiness.

We started with data from the Gallup Student Poll, a brief student survey -- available at no charge for any public school district that wishes to participate -- that measures hope about the future, engagement and enthusiasm in school, and wellbeing. Hopeful students believe that the future will be better than the present, and that they have the power to make it so. Gallup research has consistently shown a link between students with high hope and having a higher high school grade point average, a higher graduation rate, and college success. Engaged students have an emotional connection with their school. They are more likely to show up for class and are active participants in the learning process.

Gallup analyzed the rankings of high schools in Maryland's MCPS -- the 17th-largest school district in the country -- to see if they were also the top-performing schools on the Gallup Student Poll measures of student hope and engagement. Most eligible fifth through 12th graders in the district -- nearly 70,000 students -- participated in the 2012 Gallup Student Poll.

The MCPS high schools at the top of U.S. News & World Report's rankings -- based on achievement data from the 2010-2011 academic year -- and at the top of the 2012 Gallup Student Poll hope and engagement measures are remarkably similar. Of the 21 high schools in Maryland awarded a gold medal rating, seven are in the Montgomery County district, including the top six high schools in the state. All seven of the gold-medal designated high schools in Montgomery County were in the top half of MCPS's high schools on Gallup's hope and engagement measures. These findings, although only from one school district, may suggest that schools filled with students who have high levels of hope and engagement also rank highly in terms of academic success and college readiness.

While the U.S. News & World Report achievement data and the Gallup Student Poll data are from different academic years, previous research indicates that student hope and engagement leads to higher academic achievement and overall student wellbeing. The sustained success reveals that MCPS high schools have worked for years to create a great place for students to learn. The 2012 results suggest future student achievement will continue to be strong in these schools, in large part due to the demonstrated and sustained focus on hope and engagement -- important aspects of the student experience.

We believe that the high schools ranked highest on the 2012 Gallup Student Poll measures of hope and engagement will rank highly on the U.S. News & World Report's list next year. For now, we encourage every school in the country to sign up for the Fall 2013 administration of the Gallup Student Poll.

Tim Hodges, Ph.D., is a Director of Research for Gallup's Education Practice. He consults with K-12 school districts and higher education institutions and leads research projects in strengths development, employee selection, employee engagement, and wellbeing.

Shane J. Lopez, Ph.D., author of Making Hope Happen, is the world's leading researcher on hope. He is a Gallup Senior Scientist and Research Director of the Clifton Strengths Institute. Dr. Lopez is chief architect of the Gallup Student Poll, a measure of hope, engagement, and wellbeing that taps into the hearts and minds of U.S. public school students to determine what drives achievement. It is available at no cost to public schools or districts interested in using it to start a hope conversation in their community. More than 1 million students have participated since its inception.