The New Best High Schools List

We have a brand new 2015 "Best High Schools" List from U.S. News & World Report, not to be confused with the recent Washington Post "Most Challenging High Schools" list that came out a few weeks ago. Except that, in the words of an old Herman's Hermits song, "Second verse list, same as the first." Well, not the same exactly, but pretty damn close. Both lists are created from some combination of the frequency of students at the schools taking either the Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses and how well they do on the tests. Not surprisingly, a BASIS school makes the list—BASIS Scottsdale is number 2—as does Tucson's University High at number 17. BASIS Tucson North most likely would have made the list as well, except that its move from the BASIS Tucson campus meant it didn't fit into the scoring formula.

The methodology the magazine used to create the list makes it sound like it's important how well economically disadvantaged students do at the school compared to similar students at other schools. That's not exactly true. A school's "economically disadvantaged score" doesn't have anything to do with where schools place on the list. Doing reasonably well with those students is a hurdle you have to jump over, a door you have to pass through, before you're allowed to compete. Once you've proven your economically disadvantaged students are doing well enough, your placement on the list is purely an AP/IB thing.

However, even that isn't entirely true. If you're most charter schools—and that includes BASIS charters—it doesn't matter how well you do with economically disadvantaged students, or even if you have any in your student population.

U.S. News determines a school's percentage of "economically disadvantaged students" by looking at state records and finding out what percentage of students at a school qualify for free or reduced lunch. The problem is, most charters don't serve lunches for their students, so they don't submit tallies of qualifying students to the state.

I wanted to make sure I had this right, so I contacted Katie Sarvas, BASIS.ed's Director of External Relations (BASIS.ed is the for-profit company that runs the nonprofit BASIS schools. Long story.). She confirmed what I thought.
We do not report on free and reduced lunch for our students since we do not serve lunch at our charter schools. As a result, the data that U.S. News and World Report receives shows an “N/A” (or zero) for these fields.
Next, I found out how U.S. News deals with this situation by looking through its detailed description of methodology.
The percentage of students in poverty was calculated with enrollment values retrieved from the CCD’s eligibility counts for free or reduced‐price lunch, relative to the total number of students at a school. The weighted mean value of the state was used when poverty values were missing for a school. [boldface added for emphasis]
I took enough college stat to be suspicious of all things statistical, but not enough to know what the "weighted mean value of the state" is. It sounds to me like U.S. News supplies a best-guess number of economically disadvantaged students for schools like BASIS. It also sounds like, contrary to the impression it leaves in its descriptions, it really doesn't care if you have a significant number of economically disadvantaged students at your school or how well they do. (FYI: U.S. News lists University High as having 17 percent economically disadvantaged students, a low number considering the high percentage in the district.)

All this confirms my healthy distrust of lists and statistics. Caveat emptor is the best rule to follow. Unless you read the ingredients on the package carefully or dig deep in the box to find out what's inside, you really don't know what you're getting.