The exclusion of BASIS from the latest list of “Best High Schools” published by U.S. News and World Report is a local story with national implications.
Tucson readers will immediately understand part of the title. BASIS is a charter school founded in Tucson in 1998. It gradually expanded within Arizona to Oro Valley, Phoenix (multiple locations, most notably its Scottsdale school), and Flagstaff. It has also opened schools in California (Silicon Valley), Louisiana, and Washington.
Some BASIS schools start in elementary grades; many begin with grades 4 or 5 and end at grade 12. BASIS is free and open to all. If necessary, a lottery is used to select enrollees.
[Full disclosure: I have worked with students attending BASIS schools, but it has been a small part of my practice. I do not receive referrals from any school, including BASIS. In addition, this article is not about the efficacy or social utility of charter schools.]
Charter schools are common in Arizona. However, BASIS stands out because it claims to operate some of the finest schools in the country. From a BASIS web site:
Our schools are among the nation’s best schools by any measure: national rankings, OECD Test for Schools (based on PISA) exams, Advanced Placement® results, National Merit Scholarship Program® honors, earned college merit aid, and college admissions, among many other highly respected standards and honors. We hire bright, passionate people to teach the acclaimed BASIS Curriculum at all 27 BASIS Charter Schools, and provide nearly 17,000 students with an excellent education.
Another interesting feature is that BASIS students finish their studies – and all state required curricula – in 11th grade. Their senior year consists of “capstone courses” which venture into college curricula and often involve internships.
Of course, many high schools claim to accelerate learning and place their elite graduates in fine universities. And many high schools in Tucson do exactly that, including – but very much not limited to – BASIS.
But part of what made BASIS unique was its recognition by U.S. News and World Report. You may associate USNWR with college rankings, but it also ranks high schools.
There are other high school rankings in addition to USNWR’s list (see e.g., https://thebestschools.org/rankings/best-public-high-schools-us/; https://www.greatschools.org/gk/summary-rating/), but they are not directed toward college admissions officers.
Here was USNWR’s list of the top ten high schools for 2018.
- BASIS Scottsdale, Ariz.
- BASIS Chandler, Ariz.
- BASIS Oro Valley, Ariz.
- BASIS Tucson North, Ariz.
- BASIS Flagstaff, Ariz.
- Meridian School, Round Rock, Tex.
- International Academy of Macomb, Clinton Township, Mich.
- BASIS Peoria, Ariz.
- Baccalaureate School for Global Education, New York
- Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Fairfax County, Va.
Yes, BASIS schools, including two in Tucson, occupied the first five spots out of approximately 5,948 schools ranked that year by USNWR! See https://www.usnews.com/info/blogs/press-room/articles/2018-05-09/us-news-reveals-rankings-of-2018-best-high-schools. BASIS schools also dominated the 2017 and 2016 rankings.
But no more, and therein lies a tale, provided courtesy of the Washington Post. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2019/06/01/us-news-makes-major-changes-high-school-rankings-how-it-dramatically-changes-results/?utm_term=.93114ffa4b62.
Here are the top ten schools listed by USNWR for 2019:
- Academic Magnet High School (SC)
- Maine School of Science and Mathematics
- BASIS Scottsdale (AZ)
- Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (VA)
- Central Magnet School (TN)
- Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology (GA)
- Haas Hall Academy (AR)
- International Academy of Macomb (MI)
- Payton College Preparatory High School (IL)
- Signature School (IN)
BASIS no longer dominates the list. Without coming across as too much of a Tucson “homer,” I was surprised. But the article in the Washington Post, and a review of USNWR’s website, proved revelatory.
With malice toward none, I have concluded that USNWR’s Best High School List is no longer a useful indicator for college admissions.
The “old” list – “you have ONE job”
Before 2019, USNWR used a single criterion for ranking high schools: its College Readiness Index, which in turn was based solely on “performance on and participation in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams.”
USNWR’s use of this one criterion explains BASIS’s prominence on its list. BASIS requires its students to take AP exams – students’ test results factor into their grades for those AP courses. The average BASIS student takes 11.9 exams, with an average score of 3.8. BASIS notes that “many BASIS Curriculum School graduates choose to take as many as 20 AP Exams.” https://www.basised.com/achievements/college-acceptances-/.
How did USNWR obtain the AP participation and performance data to report those scores? From the College Board, of course, after obtaining permission from every state other than South Dakota – did you really think that your scores were private? See https://www.usnews.com/education/best-high-schools/articles/how-us-news-calculated-the-rankings.
For years, BASIS schools had a lock on the rankings simply by virtue of its policy and the hard-working and talented students who stuck to a grueling regimen to graduate. It takes a certain type of bright student to achieve under these circumstances, and high schools that can turn out those students are certainly some of the best of breed. (Again, whether the BASIS model is the best method for educating students is outside the scope of this article.)
The USNWR criterion was intelligible and – in its way – useful to colleges looking for the hardest-working, highest achieving, students in the country.
However, BASIS schools are quite small. At the high school level, they do not provide the same opportunities as much larger high schools for extracurricular activities, such as science and math competitions, varsity sports, or other activities which require teams of students supported by advisers. Students who are interested in the performing arts will find better opportunities elsewhere because BASIS schools do not have the critical mass of students necessary to support orchestras, theater productions, and the like. BASIS misses out on plenty of outstanding students as a result. They also lose a substantial number of their students to attrition.
Rating BASIS high schools the best in the country provided an incomplete picture of what makes a high school outstanding, and its graduates competitive for college admissions. Nonetheless, colleges could understand what the rankings meant, and give them whatever weight they chose.
The new list – you had ONE job, and you did what?!
This year, USNWR expanded its project to rate over 17,000 public schools. It also replaced the single criterion test with a weighting of six criteria:
The 2019 Best High Schools rankings take a holistic approach to evaluating schools, looking at six factors: college readiness, reading and math proficiency, reading and math performance, underserved student performance, college curriculum breadth and graduation rates. Specifically, college readiness measures participation and performance on AP and IB exams.https://www.usnews.com/info/blogs/press-room/articles/2019-04-30/us-news-announces-expanded-2019-best-high-schools-rankings
Here are the six criteria, and the contribution of each to the final score used for ranking:
- The school’s absolute performance in math and reading (i.e., performance index or PI) on state assessments (20%).
- The school’s relative math and reading performance, defined as the difference between the school’s PI and its expected PI given its population of historically underserved students (20%).
- The school’s equity gap, or the degree to which the performance of a school’s historically underserved groups differs from the performance, on average, of non-underserved students in the state (a difference sometimes referred to as an “external performance gap”) (10%).
- The school’s graduation rate (10%);
- The school’s college readiness index based on Advanced Placement and/or International Baccalaureate participation and performance (30%);
- The school’s college curriculum breadth index, based on the breadth of AP and/or IB participation (10%).
And here is the explanation by UNSWR’s consultant about why it created a new – and more complex – methodology:
Factoring state assessments and graduation in rank order provides a more balanced result than relying only on the rank order of college-level exam data. Using multiple indicators to contribute to a single score ensures that rank order is less affected by the idiosyncrasies of measuring heterogeneous student cohorts on the single metric of college-readiness exams. In the revamped methodology, a school’s ranking incorporates data from multiple measures of academic quality, producing a more thorough and non-idiosyncratic assessment of its relative performance.https://media.beam.usnews.com/36/47/5c3cc8424eb38375290ed8d9571c/190429-bhs2019technicalappendix.pdf (the entire methodology explained).
This explanation is interesting, but irrelevant. To start, schools are not ranked separately on each criterion on the one list that is displayed, although that data is included for each high school if you “click through” its name on the ranking list. Separate lists ranking high schools by graduation rate, or by the performance of underserved children, would be relevant in determining the relative performance of an underserved or “at risk” student. But the ranking of the school in the list itself is based on the “composite” score alone.
There are also additional issues associated with four of the six criteria. One is obviously flawed, and three others are not useful to colleges.
The flawed measure is the fourth criterion, which relies on the “graduation rate” of each school. Given that students move with their parents, trying to decipher excellence by merely stating the percentage of 9th graders who ultimately graduated from a particular school is a fool’s errand. Yet, that is the methodology used: https://media.beam.usnews.com/36/47/5c3cc8424eb38375290ed8d9571c/190429-bhs2019technicalappendix.pdf (page 11). Speaking as a local, I am pretty sure that University High in Tucson does not have a graduation rate that ranks merely #1,232nd in the United States.
Moving from the flawed to the merely unhelpful, the first criterion relies on the results of state assessment tests. Yet, assessment tests vary in content and difficulty from state to state. Further, most of the top students applying to college are studying material that is far more difficult, and in some cases just different, from that tested on state assessment tests. (A similar problem arises with the SAT/ACT, as the math tested on those exams does not include calculus.)
Finally, the second and third criteria add adjustments to the achievement scores of the students to reflect how well the school should have performed based on USNWR’s assessment of: 1) the percentage of underserved students in the student body; and 2) the performance of those underserved students as compared to that of underserved students elsewhere in the state.
This means that a high school which does a better job of educating its underserved students than its peers will receive a higher rating. Yet most college applicants are not among the underserved at most schools. Here is a clue that the new ratings are not about helping colleges assess the strength of college applicants at different high schools. Rather, they are about recognizing how well schools are fulfilling certain educational goals.
Because a substantial percentage of the USNWR ratings for these schools do not directly measure the academic abilities of students, those ratings cannot be used to compare college applicants from different schools. This is potentially confusing to parents, students, and even college admissions officers because the USNWR college rankings are designed, and advertised, as a measure of the academic quality of the colleges ranked.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with an organization choosing to rate “the best high schools” to identify outstanding efforts by a school’s administration and faculty. School districts and policymakers will no doubt use the USNWR list as a measure of how well high schools are serving their communities, along with areas for improvement.
What this list should not be used for? College admissions.
College consultants may wish to explain this conclusion to their clients. One hopes that colleges already understand it.
Oh, and what about those BASIS schools left off the Top Ten list? You can still find them in a quiet corner of the USNWR web empire, under “Best Charter Schools.” See https://www.usnews.com/education/best-high-schools/national-rankings/charter-school-rankings. In any event, I doubt that many colleges will be looking there.