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Understanding the Magic that is BASIS Scottsdale, “The [Um,] Best Public High School in America.”

December 8, 2017

On December 06, 2017, Business Insider produced an article featuring BASIS Scottsdale (Arizona) charter school, “the best public high school in America,” as declared by US News and World Report, where BASIS charter schools frequently top the rankings.

Business Insider is generous enough to extend BASIS “success” as apparently meaning charter schools are better than traditional public schools, period:

Charter schools are public schools that are privately run. Their supporters see them as providing a leg up for underserved students who lack access to a personalized education, while critics say they snatch away limited resources from other public schools.

Polarizing as they may be, charter schools have a track record of success.

Business Insider continues as follows:

Business Insider spent the day at Basis Scottsdale to see what makes it the best in the nation.

I thought I’d see if I might find some concise info on the secret(s) in the sauce, so to speak, behind the BASIS Scottsdale marvel. What I discovered is this May 01, 2017, examination of BASIS Scottsdale following the 2017 US News and World Report declaration of BASIS Scottsdale bestiferousness written by retired school principal Jim Hall, who founded Arizonans for Charter School Accountability (AZCSA).

Some excerpts from Hall’s report:

BASIS Scottsdale charter school was named the best high school in the nation for 2017 by U.S. News and World Reports (U.S. News). The top three high schools in the country are BASIS schools and BASIS has the top five schools in Arizona according to the report. What is the secret?  What makes BASIS Scottsdale the best and what can public districts learn from the BASIS model?

BASIS Scottsdale’s statistics are very impressive.  According to U.S. News, Basis Scottsdale is 31% minority.  92.5 % of all students were proficient on the 2014-15 AZ Merit test and an amazing 92.3% of disadvantaged students were proficient on the test.  Students had a 97% success rate passing Advanced Placement Tests and averaged passing 11 AP tests.  They have a 100% graduation rate.

There are four major factors analyzed in the U.S. News rankings:

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

BASIS Scottsdale does not meet the U.S. News expectations for disadvantaged students or graduation rates. The 92.3% success rate for disadvantaged students on the AZ Merit test is deceptive and inaccurate. There is also a huge problem with attrition with all BASIS high schools. BASIS Scottsdale had 84% of 9th grade students in 2011-12 make it to the 12th grade in 2014-15, not 100% as indicated by U.S. News.  Overall, only 65% of the freshmen at the six BASIS high schools in 2011-12 were still at BASIS in 2014-15.  This is not the resume of the best schools in the U.S.

BASIS “Disadvantaged” Students

Educating all children, including disadvantaged and non-college bound students is central to the U.S. News vision of school excellence.  This is the opening statement from the 2017 Technical Manual: (Bold added for emphasis)

“To produce the 2017 Best High Schools rankings, U.S. News & World Report teamed with North Carolina-based RTI International, a global nonprofit social science research firm.

RTI implemented the U.S. News comprehensive rankings methodology, which is based on these key principles: that a great high school must serve all of its students well, not just those who are college bound, and that it must be able to produce measurable academic outcomes to show it is successfully educating its student body across a range of performance indicators.”

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 defines poverty and minority distribution as follows:

Poverty distribution: This is the percentage of a school’s 2014-2015 total enrollment that was eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, or the percentage of economically disadvantaged students (black and Hispanic).

Minority distribution: This is the percentage of a school’s 2014-2015 total enrollment made up of black students and Hispanic students.

An amazing 92.3% of BASIS Scottsdale’s disadvantaged students performed better than state average on the AZ Merit test.  There is just one problem:

There are less than 8 disadvantaged students at BASIS Scottsdale.

First, there are no free/reduced lunch students at BASIS Scottsdale.  There are no free/reduced lunch students at any BASIS school.

[Schneider’s note: Business Insider includes the following note in its BASIS Scottsdale feature: “Low-income families may be at a disadvantage for sending their kids to Basis because the school does not provide buses to campus. It only recently started a free-lunch program.”]

Secondly, black and Hispanic students made up only 3% of the total 9-12 enrollment at BASIS Scottsdale in 2014-15.  There were 281 students in grades 9-12 in 2014-15, so approximately 8 high school students at BASIS Scottsdale were Hispanic or black and could be considered “disadvantaged.”

The average household income in BASIS Scottsdale’s 85259 zip code is $155,756 while the average income in the City of Scottsdale is $113,277 and Arizona is only $54,229.  The median home value in 85259 is $615,500, the fifth highest real estate zip code in Arizona (see here and here).  …

There is a very good chance that the eight black and Hispanic students at BASIS Scottsdale are far from “disadvantaged.”

BASIS Scottsdale’s minority students are almost all Asian – there were 192 Asian students enrolled in grades 5-12 in 2014-15. BASIS Scottsdale is 97% White and Asian.  When U.S. News reports that 92.3% of disadvantaged students were proficient on state testing, they are talking about less than 8 students since the AZ Merit test is not given in the 12th grade.

BASIS Scottsdale does not have 100% graduation rate as presented by U.S. News.

The U.S. News definition of graduation rates:

“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.”

Arizona calculates graduation rates based on the percentage of ninth grade students that graduate from 12th grade in four years, regardless of the schools they attended in 9th and 12th grade.  That means that a student who began at BASIS in 9th grade and then transferred to a public district and graduated in four years is counted as a graduate. …

BASIS Scottsdale’s graduation rate is actually 81% – 54 students were in 9th grade in 2011-12 and there were 44 left in 12th grade in 2014-15.  The overall graduation rate for all BASIS schools is just 65%. …

The attrition of students between 6th grade and 12th grade is far worse. BASIS Scottsdale had 125 students in 6th grade in 2008-09. Only 44 students (35%) of those students made it to 12th grade in 2014-15. There could never be a public district with this kind of failure rate.

The 44 BASIS Scottsdale seniors who survived the BASIS curriculum and testing requirements are in the top .4% of all students in the U.S. – and probably much higher if they passed 11 AP tests.


The question is:  Is the best school in America one where the only students finding success are?

Remember the goal of the U.S. News rankings:

“…a great high school must serve all of its students well, not just those who are college bound…” 

Ask any BASIS parent if they believe their child is college bound…

There is more to Hall’s report, including a fascinating look at the sieve of academic requirements at BASIS middle schools.

Hall concludes as follows:

BASIS Scottsdale is only successful because they have no disadvantaged students and they eliminate all but the most gifted students in the country by the 12th grade.  You be the judge if they represent the best public education in the U.S.

Meanwhile, from the Business Insider feature:

Students I spoke with agreed that anyone can succeed at Basis if they put the work into it. …

When Bailey tells people she works at Basis, they write it off as a school for geniuses. “They’re normal kids– they’re not all brilliant,” she said. “They just want to learn.”

And in an ironic note on “the best high school in America,” Business Insider concludes,

With its aggressive curriculum, emphasis on testing, and mountains of homework, Basis Scottsdale isn’t for everyone.

It seems safe to conclude that BASIS Scottsdale isn’t for most.

Repeating Hall:

Remember the goal of the U.S. News rankings:

“…a great high school must serve all of its students well, not just those who are college bound…” 

Perhaps “best” is better than “great.”

basis scottsdale


Want to read about the history of charter schools and vouchers?

School Choice: The End of Public Education? 

school choice cover  (Click image to enlarge)

Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of two other books: A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education and Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?. You should buy these books. They’re great. No, really.

both books

Don’t care to buy from Amazon? Purchase my books from Powell’s City of Books instead.

  1. David Berliner permalink

    You are a national treasure, and Jim Hall is a state treasure. But when we take his data to the legislature here, as I have done, they say yes but…”the kids that are there are getting a good education.” They care nothing for the commons and the increased inequality that Basis promotes.

    Thanks for all you do.

    David C. Berliner

    Home: 120 E. Rio Salado Pkwy., #205
    Tempe, AZ 85281
    ☎︎ 480-861-0484
    Office: Regents’ Professor Emeritus,
    Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College,
    Arizona State University,
    Tempe, AZ 85287

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