What being ranked as one of the Best High Schools in the Country really means

by David Safier

U.S. News & World Report has published its latest National High School Rankings. BASIS Tucson is Number 2 on the list, and BASIS Scottsdale is Number 5. Sounds like BASIS does a great job of educating its students, doesn't it? Or maybe not. Maybe it does a great job of weeding out the academically weakest students so only the strong survive until their senior year, which is the only year counted in the magazine's rankings.

U.S. News & World Report ranks high schools based on how well their seniors do in the schools' AP (Advanced Placement) or IB (International Baccalaureate) courses, whichever the schools offer. Before it starts ranking the seniors, the magazine makes sure the economically disadvantaged and minority students perform above the state average for those students. Then, when a school makes it over that hurdle, its ranking is based on the percentage of seniors who took an AP or IB test during or before their senior year and passed the national exams (3 or higher for AP, 4 or higher for IB). Finally it looks at how well the seniors score on those tests. To break a tie between schools, the students' unrounded AP or IP scores are looked at more carefully to see which school edged out the other.

BASIS Tucson and BASIS Scottsdale were among 25 high schools to get a perfect 100% score, meaning every senior took and passed at least one AP class during or before their senior year. That accomplishment looks far less impressive, however, when you realize that BASIS schools require their students take numerous AP courses, and they weed out their weakest students before they become seniors.

This year's rankings are based on the 2010-2011 school year. The Class of 2011 at BASIS Tucson had 22 students in its senior class, based on the Average Daily Attendance records the school submitted to the Arizona Department of Education, but it started out with 41 students when they were freshmen. That means 45% of freshmen didn't make it to their senior year at the school. The numbers are even more dramatic if you go back to when they were sixth graders. The Class of 2011 began with 75 sixth graders; 71% of them didn't last at BASIS until they were seniors.

The attrition rate at BASIS Scottsdale is similar. The Class of 2011 had 20 students in its senior class and 40 students when they were freshmen, meaning half the freshmen left before the senior year. In the sixth grade, the class of 2011 was 54 strong, meaning 63% of the
sixth graders didn't make it to their senior year at BASIS.

Like all national rankings of high schools and colleges, the U.S. News & World Report rankings are blunt instruments. Using performance on AP or IB exams as the sole criterion for judging the quality of a high school leaves out far more about the quality of the schools than it puts in. It also gives a distinct edge to schools that selectively weed out their weakest students year by year. That's how BASIS gets its high ratings and how it has created its reputation as one of the country's best schools — not necessarily by doing a superior job of educating its students but by making sure only its finest students reach the senior year.

Comments are closed.