Dunn School
Experiential learning is at the core of Dunn School’s approach to educating the whole student. The Los Olivos school received an A+ rating in a Niche.com survey of Santa Barbara County independent high schools. (Dunn School photo)

Despite the proliferation of data-driven ratings, rankings and reports, schools are much more than a collection of statistics.

The most important part of the school selection equation is finding a place that’s the best fit for your child. Sifting through rankings to find a blend of student and parent reviews alongside dependable data is key.

Reviewing the different metrics used to determine how independent schools are rated, one thing becomes very clear: college acceptance rates, and the rankings of those colleges to which students are accepted, are still a huge determining factor in independent school rankings.

Still, it’s useful to go beyond academic achievement in your search, and look at areas such as extracurriculars, sports, diversity and quality of school administration.

Even in the middle of a pandemic.

Here are a few of the available “best of” resources and the criteria they use to determine rankings:


While BestColleges.com focuses primarily on college rankings, it also includes lists of the 50 best private high schools and 50 best public high schools in the United States. The site states, “Our ranked profiles set out to capture what each school does to invest in the academic excellence of its students, the factor that ultimately explains why a school deserves to be called a leader in education.”

Local Dish: Based on its criteria, on the private high school list, The Thacher School in Ojai is ranked No. 42 and Cate School in Carpinteria is not far behind at No. 50.


Niche.com publishes annual lists of Best Private High Schools, Best Private K-12 Schools, Best Boarding High Schools and Best Catholic High Schools using more than 750,000 school reviews from real students, parents and teachers, which the site claims is “more school reviews than any other place on the Internet.” The website then weighs that data with factors built from factual information, such as standardized tests, student/teacher ratio and college acceptances, and produces a standardized score for each factor at each school. Niche.com must also have an excellent marketing department, because the vast number of news outlet reports about the top ranked high schools cite the site as their data source.

Local Dish: Based on the niche.com criteria, the top-rated Santa Barbara County independent high schools in 2020 are Cate, Midland School in Los Olivos, Laguna Blanca School in Hope Ranch and Dunn School in Los Olivos (all rated A+), and three Santa Barbara schools: Bishop Diego High, Providence and Anacapa (all rated A).


PolarisList.com bases its national high school rankings on a single objective measure: the number of students a high school sends to top colleges. Its claim to fame: “With over 9,600 records, PolarisList is the largest aggregator of Harvard, Princeton and MIT matriculation data for US high schools.”

Local Dish: Based on this criteria, the top-ranked local California independent high schools are Thacher (No. 21), Cate (No. 35), Laurel Springs School in Ojai (No. 35) and Laguna Blanca (No. 72).


PrepReview.com ranks the top 100 private schools in the world based on percent estimate matriculation to MIT, Stanford, Ivy League, and Oxbridge; with sub-rankings available for the top 30 Harvard, Yale and Princeton feeder schools.

Local Dish: Cate School is ranked 50-60 (the site isn’t specific) and The Thacher School is ranked (60-70), with both rankings based on a combination of hard data and parent and student comments.


PrivateSchoolReview.com offers the ability to search for data such as affordability, student test scores, selectivity, diversity, faculty education, AP classes, sports, extracurriculars and more. This is one of the few sites that includes data for K-12 independent schools, rather than just high school rankings.


TheBestSchools.org only ranks day schools (without boarding facilities), and factors in academic excellence, diversity and innovative intangibles, such as specialized programs and facilities.

Local Dish: No local schools are ranked in its Top 50.


World-Schools.com has a list of the Best Private Schools in the United States and prides itself on being an international school directory available in seven different languages.

Local Dish: The Thacher School is included on this list, but it is difficult to tell how the rankings were done on this site.

Noozhawk contributing writer Leslie Dinaberg can be reached at news@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.