BASIS Charter’s education model: Success by Attrition


by David Safier

At the original campus of BASIS charter school in Tucson, the class of 2012 had 97 students when they were 6th graders. By the time those students were seniors, their numbers had dwindled to 33, a drop of 66%. At BASIS Scottsdale, the second campus opened, its class of 2012 fell from 53 in the 6th grade to 19 in its senior year, a drop of 64%. Those numbers aren’t unusual. Every year at those schools, the number of students dropped between 60% and 71% from 6th to 12th grade, based on the Average Daily Attendance data the schools submitted to the Arizona Department of Education.

BASIS charter schools’ high school students do stunningly well in AP classes and on other data-based measures of student achievement. But not many people understand how the schools arrive at those high numbers. They winnow the weakest students year by year until only the most academically successful survive.

When students begin their schooling at any of Arizona’s BASIS campuses in the 6th grade (recently the schools began accepting 5th graders), they are already
among the highest achieving, most motivated students in the region. Because
of the BASIS reputation, most applicants are strong students — or have parents with high expectations — who apply knowing the school will be difficult academically. By charter school law, everyone who applies has to be accepted unless there are too many students, at which time they will be chosen by lottery, but BASIS does what it can to make sure the students have a reasonable chance of meeting with the school’s high academic expectations before they start school in the fall. When they are accepted, students take a placement test. If they score low, the students and their parents are counseled that the students most likely won’t be successful. If they really want to enter the school, they will be moved back a grade.

But even self-selection and a placement test aren’t enough to assure that students succeed at BASIS. The middle school years — grades 6, 7 and 8 — are the proving grounds. Students are pushed hard academically in those grades, but they know the academic demands will be much tougher when they hit 9th grade. As a result, a large percentage of students withdraw between 6th and 8th grade years, generally 50% or more. The biggest dropoff is from the 8th to the 9th grade, when students who have been barely hanging on decide — or are counseled — to withdraw before they enter high school.

BASIS began its first school outside Arizona this school year, in Washington, DC. The school began in October with 443 students; 43 withdrew in the middle of the year. BASIS kept the money it received for the students — hundreds of thousands of dollars — and the schools that had to admit them mid-year got nothing. Because of high rate of student withdrawal, the DC charter board refused BASIS’ request to raise the number of students it is allowed to enroll next year. Once parents in DC catch on to BASIS’ tough academic standards, fewer of the “wrong” kind of students may enroll in the future, which could mean fewer mid-year withdrawals. But residents should expect each class to get smaller and smaller as students drop out at the end of each year and aren’t replaced.

BASIS has big expansion plans. It wants to open a campus in Texas next year with more to follow, and it’s been selling its academic success nationwide. Communities would be wise to expect most of the students who enroll in middle school won’t make the final cut. They’ll be gone long before high school graduation rolls around.

Below are charts of attendance numbers at BASIS Tucson and BASIS Scottsdale which follow the classes through their senior years. Other BASIS campuses are too new for their attendance numbers to indicate significant trends.

BASIS-Tucson-attendance BASIS-Scottsdale-attendance



  1. And, why do students opt to leave? I initially enrolled my son in BASIS, but with further investigation, I pulled him out as quickly as possible. As a master teacher myself, I have great concerns about the rigor being excessive to a damaging level. It may work for kids who are very academically inclined and driven. But, for a perfectly “normal” child, it is against what is known about child development and learning.

    It is also important to recognize that the rating of the school (as seen in a national publication) was based solely on the number of students taking AP tests. There is so much more to a school’s success to be considered.

  2. Thanks Spin,

    I should have just posted that reply from a year ago instead of reworking it here for Mr. Safier. Funny that Ms. Cassanova or Ms. Strauss never corrected the record despite being told the facts. Wonder if Mr. Safier will.


    4/13/2012 2:45 PM MST

    Ms Casanova really misses the mark with trying to denigrate BASIS Scottsdale and BASIS Tucson. First BASIS Scottsdale opened in 2003, thus for 2009-2010 it still had not a had a cohort that has actually started in 5th grade graduate. Second, many choose BASIS, knowing full well that they intend to leave in 9th grade for the full high school experience (athletics, prom, etc.) or they leave to attend a privatereligious school which only offer 9th-12th. Finally, all BASIS student have met the requirements for graduation after 11th grade and most choose to go on to college at that time with only a few staying to complete a senior projectinternship in 12th grade.

    The point that this new way of calculating graduation rates is poor may be valid, but Ms Casanova is wrong in trying to bring down the best public or private academic offerings in the state of Arizona.

  3. Mr. Safier wrote…

    “If they really want to enter the school, they will be moved back a grade.”

    Where did you get this non-sense?

    The majority of students enroll in 5th grade. There is no 4th grade (yet) at BASIS to ‘move’ them back to.

    For students entering in later grades, they would likely be behind academically their peers at BASIS.

    For example a student entering in 7th grade would likely not..

    Have 2 years of Latin
    Be prepared for Algebra 1
    Have exposure to ChemistryPhysicsBiology

    Would it be fair to this student to be placed in 7th grade?

    Instead of your uninformed speculation, why not try contacting the founder to get the truth.

  4. You are missing some important facts…

    1) A significant number of students choose to leave at 8th grade to attend private high schools (Brophy or Phoenix Country Day in the case of BASIS Scottsdale) or to attend a ‘full service’ high school (as evidenced by your chart).
    2) Many students graduate after 11th grade as they have met the AZ requirements for graduation and the school offers this option to students.
    3) The schools do not get many applicants after 5th6th grades because a student would be too far behind to catch up.
    4) Demand is so great that BASIS Scottsdale is opening another school in Scottsdale and is opening a K-4 school in Tucson.

    Did you contact the school directly to ask about their attrition rates and whether it is students leaving by choice or by winnowing?

    You mentioned that BASIS DC had a 10% attrition losing 43 students across 4 grade levels. So how does that compare to other first year charter schools in DC? Is every charter school a good fit for every student?

    Additionally, did you see that the Washington Post now considers BASIS Scottsdale and BASIS Tucson ‘Top-performing schools with elite students’ on par with magnet schools such as Thomas Jefferson High and Bronx High School of Science. These magnet schools screen their students via testsessaysinterviews. BASIS takes all those willing to do the work and lucky enough to win the lottery.

    This is something we in Arizona education should be proud of instead of taking pot shots without doing any actually research or investigation.