by David Safier
U.S. News & World Report just published its yearly national high school rankings, and once again, BASIS Tucson and University High scored very well, 5th and 7th respectively. The question is, what do those rankings mean?
First, they mean that much-maligned TUSD has a high school in the national top ten, earning the district bragging rights. Second, they mean charter schools aren't better than district schools simply because they're charters. Half the high schools in Arizona's top ten are district schools, including, locally, both UHS and Catalina Foothills High.
Third and most important, the rankings mean schools with elite student bodies rank high on the U.S. News & World Report scale. If you have lots of high income high achievers for students, with a smattering of lower income high achievers thrown in, and your staff is reasonably good, your school is likely to look good-to-great in the rankings.
As everyone knows, UHS is highly selective. It only accepts top academic students from TUSD and neighboring districts, so naturally those students are going to be among the best and the brightest in the area. BASIS, on the other hand, claims to be non-selective since it has to take all applicants, and if too many students apply, it holds a random lottery. But that's deceptive, and the people who run BASIS charters know it. The fact is, BASIS schools have a four step process which ensures that they accept mostly high achieving students, then weed out students who don't perform at the expected level. A school like Cat Foothills actually takes everyone in its district who walks through the door, but since the district is generally high income, that makes for a very select student body.
The Star article doesn't go into detail about how the schools are ranked, which creates the mistaken impression that the highly ranked schools are actually doing a better job with their students than lower ranked schools. Worse, the Star article parrots the ranking criteria laid out by U.S. News & World Report without looking at them carefully. I understand, it's hard to sort through the criteria if you're not an educator, but a Google search would reveal plenty of people who have examined how the rankings work. There's no excuse for a journalist not doing the necessary research, or consulting with a local scholar who has.
The only important criterion for picking a top school is how well its seniors do in the school's AP (Advanced Placement) or IB (International Baccalaureate) program. Schools emphasizing those programs and having high performing students score well in the rankings almost by definition.
A quick look at the criteria makes it seem like they emphasize how well the schools do with their low income and minority students, but a closer look shows that's not the way it actually works. Schools whose low income/minority students perform worse than the state average are removed from the list, but once that rough sorting process is over, it's all about the AP and the IB programs. Since any low income/minority students who stay at BASIS are going to be high performing compared to similar students across the state, and since UHS only takes the highest performing students no matter what their income or ethnicity, it's simple for those schools to make the cut. I imagine a similar dynamic works at Cat Foothills.
There's a good reason why BASIS schools rank high year after year. Remember, it's all about the performance of the senior class, so a school with very high achieving seniors is going to receive a high ranking. Well, BASIS schools' senior classes are generally a third to a quarter the size of the entering fifth grade class. In 2014, for instance, BASIS Tucson has 149 fifth graders and 40 twelfth graders. By the time the students make it to their senior year, the weakest students have been culled from the group, and the high performing few who remain are likely to score ridiculously high on their AP exams, resulting in ridiculously high rankings.
Before BASIS supporters howl that I'm being unfair to the schools, that I hate the charter schools because they're so successful, let me say, I think BASIS schools accomplish their mission well, but it's important to understand what that mission is. Their mission is to provide a rigorous education to capable students who are willing to work very hard. The mission is not to provide a world class education to rank-and-file students at all levels of ability and motivation, up and down the economic ladder.
What I hope to hear from BASIS staff and supporters some day is something I never hear from them — basic truth in advertising about what BASIS schools are and what they accomplish. Stop comparing the highly selective charters to non-selective district schools. Stop saying you've cracked the education code, that you know how to turn ordinary students into world beaters. It's simply not true.
Please, if anyone associated with BASIS schools believes I'm being unfair, help me understand the error of my ways, using facts and figures if possible. I've been writing about BASIS for years and no one from the schools has challenged the accuracy of what I've said, so I have to think I've got it right.