Every student has their own strengths and skills – some shine on stage while others prefer conducting lab experiments or coding software.
But students don’t have to wait until college to pursue their academic interests at a deeper level. There are public high schools dedicated to specialized subject areas, including science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM.
“If your child is truly interested in science and math, for example, and they have the opportunity to go to a school specializing in those fields, ultimately you’re in a position where you are stimulating their thinking and putting them into a condition that potentially accelerates their growth, development and learning,” says Ronald Chaluisán, executive director of the Newark Trust for Education, a nonprofit focused on improving the quality of public schools.
STEM vs. Traditional Public High Schools
Defining a STEM school is complicated, as these kinds of schools vary from place to place.
Some schools aim to advance STEM education by providing more rigorous course options than most traditional schools. There are often opportunities for project-based and hands-on learning, like participating in robotics or science research labs.
“We have that outside view of what really works and how technology is developed,” says Marc Weinstein, mechanical engineering instructor at Middlesex County Academy, which placed in the top 10 among U.S. News’ 2022 Best STEM High Schools.
A STEM program can also be embedded in a traditional school, so not all students are required to participate in a fully immersive experience.
In any STEM program or standalone STEM high school, students are required to take classes outside of STEM for graduation, including in subjects such as English, social studies and physical education.
“Other subjects are just as valuable because they inform how we use the different fields in STEM,” says Christine Anne Royce, professor at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania and 2018-2019 president of the National Science Teaching Association.
Schools that emphasize STEM often offer more Advanced Placement and dual enrollment courses than traditional schools. These courses can lead to college credit, which gives students a chance to test out of introductory or prerequisite college classes.
“They’re able to really dig into what they would like to do for their major, instead of taking those freshman college courses that make you think, ‘What’s the point?,'” says Amanda Austin, director of Iberville STEM Academy in Louisiana.
To enroll in a STEM school, students often have to enter a lottery. Some schools require an application and for students to demonstrate proficiency in STEM subjects. Attending a public STEM high school may also come with additional fees to account for laboratory equipment, technology and competitions, but financial assistance is often available.
“So many of the high-skill & high-wage jobs in our 5-year and 50-year future will require advanced STEM knowledge, skills and competencies,” IV Bray, principal of the Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science and Technology in Georgia, which placed in the top 20 of U.S. News’ STEM rankings, wrote in an email.
U.S. News releases Best STEM High Schools rankings every year. AP exam scores in STEM subject areas and student participation in college-level math and science courses, based on 2020 graduates, were key metrics for the 2022 rankings. To be eligible for the STEM rankings, schools must have been in the top 1,000 of the overall national public high school rankings.
Find Your Fit
To find the best high school match, students first need to sit down with family members to discuss their interests. If those include things like building machines, conducting experiments, gaming or solving math equations, a STEM school could be a good fit.
“Picking a STEM school in the hope it is a resumé-builder for college admissions, as opposed to having a love of STEM, would be a misguided first step in exploring fit,” Ann N. Bonitatibus, principal of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Virginia, which earned a spot in the top 10 of the STEM rankings, wrote in an email. For a STEM school to be a good choice, “students must display commitment to STEM and have an innovative or entrepreneurial spirit.”
STEM schools may offer fewer options for extracurricular activities, like sports and theater, if they enroll fewer students than other schools. However, some high schools have a STEAM emphasis, with the “A” representing arts.
It can often be difficult to gauge a high school based on its website. Therefore, open houses are usually available for students and families to ask questions and learn about curriculum offerings, extracurricular activities and application requirements. These are typically run by the school’s principal or administrators.
Some schools also have summer programs to expose younger students to the building and academic curriculum. Prospective students may also be matched with current students to learn about the school culture and classroom experiences.
“We’ve seen parents who want the school more than their kids and the kids don’t pass the entrance requirements or they’re miserable in class,” Weinstein says. “So kids need to want it as much as the parents do.”
High-Ranking STEM Public Schools
Each school in the rankings receives a STEM Achievement Index – a combination of the STEM Math Achievement Index and the STEM Science Achievement Index – that has a maximum score of 100. Only the top 250 high schools that earned a score of at least 76.6 on the STEM Achievement Index receive a numerical rank.
Two factors contribute to the STEM Math Achievement Index: the percentage of test-takers who score a 3 or higher on at least one AP math exam and the percentage of students in the 2020 high school graduating class who took at least one AP math course. The STEM Science Achievement Index is calculated the same way, except with science exams and courses.
“Because students in STEM schools are often accelerated in mathematics and science, they may access AP courses a year or two earlier than peers in non-STEM schools,” Bonitatibus says. “This means STEM schools often offer post-AP courses and research opportunities to extend student learning.”
The chart below features the schools in the top 10 of the 2022 Best STEM High Schools ranking, along with their location, enrollment size, STEM index and rankings. These schools either explicitly emphasize STEM in the curricula or offer a variety of STEM AP courses.