Sunnyslope High School not BASIS should get the Headlines: with U.S. News High Schools that only have high-achieving students rank at the top

April 25, 2017

Sunnyslope High School not BASIS should get the Headlines: with U.S. News High Schools that only have high-achieving students rank at the top

Updated: May 1, 2017.

The latest U.S. News and World Report “Best High School” rankings are out and the BASIS charter operators claim the top five spots in Arizona.  Those same five schools nationally take the top three spots, #5 and #7.

#1 BASIS Scottsdale

#2 BASIS North Tucson

#3 BASIS Oro Valley

#5 BASIS Peoria

#7 BASIS Chandler


Is BASIS really that good?  Or are these rankings measuring something else?  That Sunnyslope High School in Glendale Union High School District ranked 21 in Arizona should be the focus of our attention.   Among programs serving exclusively exceptionally high-achieving students, rather than BASIS, University High in Tolleson (#7 in Arizona, #21 nationally) stands out for its diverse student body.


BASIS has a very rigorous curriculum designed for extremely high achieving students.  BASIS does well because the ranking system is designed to reward schools that have a high-achieving student body and give lots of AP tests.


What the rankings say is that BASIS is the best in the nation at that.


In reality the five BASIS schools for the 2014-2015 cohort—the one examined by U.S. News–only graduated up to 206 students total—that represents one out of every 400 students who were enrolled in 12th grade that year in Arizona.


BASIS schools tend to be located in higher socio-economic demographic areas. BASIS Scottsdale is between Taliesin West and Fountain Hills in North Scottsdale.  Locations like this make sense from a market location perspective because students in these areas are more likely to come from high income parents with higher education—the perfect ingredients for stronger likelihood of higher student achievement.  They just need a large enough pool from which to pull the highest achieving students.  BASIS has no identified economically disadvantaged students and no Special Education Students according to the Arizona Dept. of Education.


The top public district high schools are not comprehensive high schools, but “choice” schools which focus on high-achieving students and offer an AP-oriented curriculum.   Four  make the Arizona top ten list #6 University High School (Tucson), #7 University High School (Tolleson), #8 Gilbert Classical Academy, and #9 Arizona College Prep-Erie Campus (Chandler).  All except the last one are in the top 30 nationally. Arizona College Prep is #87.

Of these four, University High in Tolleson stands out the most.  It has  a significant minority enrollment with two-thirds of the student body being Hispanic.  U.S. News doesn’t report economically disadvantaged, but the Arizona Dept. of Education indicates 57% for 2014-2015 participated in free and reduced lunch.   The others are “choice” schools located in more affluent areas or target students from more affluent families.  They typically share a campus with a comprehensive high school, so students can access a broader range of academic and extracurricular options.  Other districts may offer similar gifted  programs-but they are not administratively separated from the main school campus, so are not separated for U.S. News rankings, e.g., Peggy Payne Academy at McClintock High School in Tempe.

University High School (Tucson) (Arizona rank #6, 16% free and reduced lunch participation).

University High School (Tolleson) (Arizona rank #7, 57% free and reduced lunch participation)

Gilbert Classical Academy (Arizona rank #8, 0% free and reduced lunch participation)

Arizona College Prep -Erie Campus (Chandler) (Arizona rank #9,  12% free and reduced lunch participation)

The next possible exception, Presidio charter school (ranked #11 in Arizona), which has a high economically disadvantaged population fails under closer scrutiny to be much of an illustration when you discover it only has 30 students enrolled in 10th to 12th grades combined!


The top public comprehensive district high schools all serve more affluent communities with one notable exception:


Catalina Foothills High School (Arizona rank #14, 12% free and reduced lunch participation)

Chaparral High School (Arizona rank #16, 5% free and reduced lunch participation)

Pinnacle High School (Arizona rank #17, 7% free and reduced lunch participation)

Desert Mountain High School (Arizona rank #18, 6% free and reduced lunch participation)

Hamilton High School (Arizona rank #20, 23% free and reduced lunch participation)

That is until we get to #21.


The school that should be making headlines—or at least looked at more carefully is ranked #21.

Sunnyslope High School in Glendale Union High School District (Arizona rank #21, 52%free and reduced lunch participation)


Sunnyslope is the outlier.  It has more than twice as many students in 12th grade than the five BASIS schools combined. Half its student body is economically disadvantaged.   What is Sunnyslope doing to be successful is a more relevant question than for the 20 Arizona schools ranked above it.


Let’s look a bit more carefully at the U.S. News criterion which illustrates the socio-economic bias.


U.S. News and World has a four step process:

  • Step 1:The first step determined whether each school’s students were performing better than statistically expected for students in that state.

U.S. News started by looking at reading and math results for all students on each state’s high school proficiency tests. U.S. News then factored in the percentages of economically disadvantaged students – who tend to score lower – enrolled at the schools to identify schools performing much better than statistical expectations. To pass Step 1, high schools’ performance had to be one-third of one standard deviation above the average.

This threshold was applied to a school’s performance compared with what would be statistically expected for that school in its state, based on its percentage of economically disadvantaged students.

In the 2017 rankings, for the second year in a row, U.S. News used an absolute performance adjustment in Step 1.

The 10 percent of schools with the highest absolute performance on their state’s reading and math assessment tests automatically passed Step 1. Schools with reading and math assessment test performance in the bottom 10 percent of the state’s results automatically failed Step 1.

U.S. News made this adjustment again to reward schools in their state for exceptionally high performance on state assessment tests, regardless of their poverty level, as well as to prevent schools in their state with exceptionally low state assessment test performance from being able to win a gold, silver or bronze medal.

  • Step 2:For schools passing the first step, Step 2 assessed whether their disadvantaged students – black, Hispanic and low-income – performed at or better than the state average for the least-advantaged students.

U.S. News compared each school’s math and reading proficiency rates for disadvantaged students with the statewide results for these student groups and then selected schools that were performing better than their state averages.

U.S. News compared each school’s math and reading proficiency rates for disadvantaged students with the statewide results for these student groups and then selected schools that were performing better than their state averages.

If you only have high achieving students-then you’ll do very well with Step 1 and Step 2.  BASIS has no identified economically disadvantaged students according to U.S. News and World Report.  But even if they did, these would be top performing economically disadvantaged students to engage the BASIS curriculum.

Generally, Step 1 and Step 2, despite the adjustment, privileges schools that serve higher socio-economic populations.  You’ll consistently find higher socio-economic schools ranking above those serving lower socio-economic populations—whether it be Mountain View v. Westwood in Mesa or North High v. Cesar Chavez in Phoenix.  As noted the one district school in Arizona’s top 10, Gilbert’s Classical Academy, is designed as an academically rigorous “choice” school within a more affluent community, Gilbert.   So Steps 1 and 2 privilege the schools with more students from more affluent backgrounds.

  • Step 3:For schools passing the first and second step, Step 3 required schools to meet or surpass a benchmark for their graduation rate. This is the second year U.S. News has included this step.

As with the assessment data used in the previous steps, high schools’ graduation rates were collected from each state. Although there is some variation in how states calculate graduation rates, the foundation of all states’ calculations is the percentage of first-time ninth-graders who were awarded diplomas four years later.

For the 2017 rankings, the graduation rate reflects the 2015 cohort – students who entered ninth grade in the 2011-2012 school year.

High schools only passed Step 3 if their rounded graduation rate was 75 percent or greater. This is an increase from the 68 percent threshold used in the 2016 rankings. This threshold was based on the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which was passed in 2015 and is the successor to the No Child Left Behind Act. The law stipulates that states are required to provide additional resources to schools whose graduation rates are 67 percent or lower.

The 75 percent threshold used in the 2017 rankings is still lower than the national average graduation rate as reported by the National Center for Education Statistics, which was 83 percent in 2014-2015. U.S. News believes that the new 75 percent threshold is a valid standard that ensures that all ranked schools do not struggle to graduate students and that at least three-quarters of their students earn high school diplomas.

Graduation rates are an important indicator of how well a school is succeeding for all its students. In future rankings, U.S. News will likely increase the threshold graduation rate needed to pass Step 3.

Schools without a graduation rate value were allowed to pass Step 3 to account for varying state rules regarding which high schools receive a calculated graduation rate, since each high school has limited control over this.

The cut-off here is 75% which should doom the high-attrition BASIS model.   Except that students who leave the school before 12th grade apparently don’t get included in the graduation rate calculation at least for schools like BASIS, as each BASiS school is reporting a 100% graduation rate or something very close to that according to U.S. News and World Report.

In 2011-2012 when students were in 9th grade, these five BASIS schools enrolled 298 9th grade students, yet only 206 remained in2014-2015, so the BASIS graduation rate was 69%. It’s a high attrition model, and that number is even higher if you look at the 8th to 9th grade transition.


From the BASIS parent handbook to move up each grade you need to pass all classes including passing the final in your class.  You take your first AP test with an AP World History class in 8thgrade along with all your other work. If you don’t get at least a “2” meaning “possibly qualified” or you don’t pass all of your classes (including passing the final in each class), then you can’t move on to 9th grade without coming up with an approved academic plan that includes retaking a version of the test normally for any failures.


In high school, BASIS students must complete a minimum of 6 AP tests to graduate—and average a minimum score of “3” meaning “qualifying.”  Leaving BASIS means that the parents have to repay the school the $93 fee for any AP tests taken and failing an AP exam likely leads to having to pay for an additional taking of the exam.


BASIS has a curriculum designed for very rigorous study—and it’s a curriculum that many students find too intense; consequently, they leave the school.  Or, they leave the school so they can have more extracurricular opportunities or both.  The students who remain are some of the highest achieving pupils in the country.

U.S. News has no mechanism apparently to consider that attrition.

 Step 4: Schools that made it through the first three steps became eligible to be judged nationally on the final step – college-readiness performance – using Advanced Placement test data as the benchmark for success. AP is a College Board program that offers college-level courses at high schools across the country.

This year’s Step 4 didn’t include International Baccalaureate test data. The International Baccalaureate Organization informed U.S. News in November 2016 that it was unable to supply U.S. News with IB data for 12th-grade students in 2014-2015 as it had in previous years.

For the 2017 Best High Schools rankings, this means that high schools that only use IB exams weren’t eligible for gold or silver medals. Like all high schools that pass Steps 1-3 of the rankings methodology, IB schools were still eligible for bronze medals. Schools that offer both IB and AP courses were eligible for gold and silver medals based on their AP exam performance if they passed Steps 1-3.

South Dakota was the only state that did not give U.S. News permission to use its schools’ AP data in Step 4, so no South Dakota schools could be evaluated in this last step.

This fourth step measured which schools produced the best college-level achievement for the highest percentages of their students. This was done by computing a College Readiness Index based on the school’s AP participation rate – the number of 12th-grade students in the 2014-2015 academic year who took at least one AP test before or during their senior year, divided by the total number of 12th-graders at the school – and how well the students performed on those tests.

The latter part, called the quality-adjusted AP participation rate, is the number of 12th-grade students in the 2014-2015 academic year who took and passed – received an AP score of 3 or higher – at least one AP test before or during their senior year, divided by the number of 12th-graders at that school. Any individual AP subject test was considered when determining whether a student took or passed at least one AP test.

For the CRI, the quality-adjusted AP participation rate was weighted 75 percent in the calculation, and the simple AP participation rate was weighted 25 percent.

The maximum CRI value is 100, which means that every 12th-grade student during the 2014-2015 academic year in a particular school took and passed at least one AP test before or during his or her senior year.

Here BASIS shines.

3.5 per cent of all graduating high school seniors  in the U.S. passed Advanced Placement (AP) Calculus AB in 2010.  Only 1.6 percent of Arizona seniors passed the exam that year.  All BASIS students must pass Calculus AB to graduate and most do so before their senior year.

BASIS high school students take 6 AP tests minimum, most take about 9, so 100% of the BASIS student body takes AP tests and they must average a score of “3” or higher to graduate-so on both parts of the U.S. News criteria BASIS reaches a maximum score.

High Schools that serve a more academically diverse student body are going to be more challenged-and especially if they serve lower socio-economic status students.  Like Steps 1 and 2, if you have students with favorable demographics in terms of likely student achievementl AND have a rigorous AP-oriented curriculum you’ll do great on Step 4.

So BASIS does provide an extremely rigorous curriculum.  They serve an extremely small fraction of very high achieving students—and have no Special Education students according to the Department of Education and no record of economically disadvantaged students.



Does that make BASIS five of the top seven high schools in the country?  As the U.S. News method illustrates—it’s all about how you define “best”—and in their case “best” starts with making sure you have high-achieving students to start with.

And the headlines should focus on Sunnyslope High School, not BASIS.



Sources used: U.S. News and World Report Methodology and Rankings

BASIS Parent Handbook for 2016-2017

Input from Jim Hall of Arizonans for Charter School Accountability and from a former BASIS employee