Why Are 2 of U.S. News's Top 5 'Best High Schools' Arizona Charter Schools?

There are some interesting surprises in the newly released rankings.

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Jim Young/Reuters

U.S. News & World Report's annual rankings of the nation's best high schools are out, and the results suggest students thrive when given access to curriculum and instruction that's significantly more challenging than what a typical American student receives.

The top 15 campuses in the rankings include magnet schools, small campuses offering specialized programs, and charter schools. Two of the top five schools are part of the BASIS charter school network in Arizona, which offers an intensive curriculum designed to be comparable to international academic standards.

The news outlet's formula for determining the best campuses is a combination of overall school performance on statewide proficiency tests, factoring in considerations for populations of disadvantaged students who typically score lower on such assessments. Schools that did well enough on those factors were then evaluated for "college readiness," using student achievement on Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate (IB) exams. (Because the data is self-reported by schools and states to a federal database, errors can occur -- which was the case for a number of campuses in last year's rankings.)

It's important to note that the rankings are a snapshot of a school's performance, rather than a definitive judgement. However, they do shine a light on campuses that are exceeding achievement benchmarks often with challenging student populations.

More than 21,000 high schools in 49 states (Nebraska didn't report enough data to be considered) and the District of Columbia were evaluated. U.S. News awarded gold, silver or bronze medals to more than 4,805 top-performing schools. Just under 41 percent of the rankings' gold-medal schools receive Title I federal funding, which is earmarked for campuses serving large populations of students of students from low-income households. California led the states with close to 28 percent of its high schools earning gold or silver medals, followed by Maryland with about 26 percent.

The two charter schools in the Top 5 are BASIS Tucson (No. 2) and BASIS Scottsdale (No. 5). Created in 1998 by Michael and Olga Block, BASIS serves about 5,000 students on eight campuses in Arizona and recently opened a charter middle school in Washington, D.C. serving about 400 students. For a second consecutive year, the top-ranked campus was the School for the Talented and Gifted in Dallas.

I asked Mary Riner, BASIS' director of external relations, to explain how the open-enrollment charter schools managed to score so highly on U.S. News & World Report's scale. She said one reason is that the program's intensive curriculum is more akin to what would be expected of students in Asian and European countries that score highly on international assessments. Proponents of the new Common Core State Standards, adopted by 46 states, contend the more rigorous expectations will eventually help American students boost their comparative performance on those same exams.

"By the time one of our kids takes AP chemistry or biology exam, they've had five years of that subject," Riner said. "We've taken the best world standards in the humanities, math and sciences in Europe and Asia and married them to the American-style freedom in the classroom."

Just how high are the academic standards at BASIS? Consider this -- the charter schools in Tucson and Scottsdale were among the 105 U.S. schools that took part in the Organization for Economic and Cooperative Development (OECD) Test for Schools, which was based on the Program for International Assessment (PISA) exam. According to a new report from education advocacy organization America Achieves, BASIS students outscored the average student from Shanghai, which ranked No. 1 in the world on the international assessment. The BASIS Scottsdale campus was among the top 1 percent of schools in the world in reading and mathematics.

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Emily Richmond is the public editor for the National Education Writers Association. She was previously the education reporter for the Las Vegas Sun.

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