'Newsweek' magazine's list of top high schools is a load of garbage

It was front-page news in May when Newsweek magazine named Tucson's BASIS charter school the top public high school in the entire country. BASIS had made the Top 10 the previous year and this year made the jump all the way to the top. Good for them ... I guess.

I've never been a big fan of the charter-school concept, mostly because I believe (quite correctly) that it was started by a Republican state Legislature as a screw-you to teachers' unions, the members of which are at the front lines of the child-rearing battles these days (all too often standing in for parents who are too busy, too selfish or too absent) and have a tendency to vote Democrat.

Charter schools are, by legislated definition, public schools, so they siphon off funds that would go to traditional public schools. That way, the Legislature can say that they've raised capital outlays to public schools, though your neighborhood school may very well be getting less money per student than it did 10 years ago. But that's OK; charter schools, we're told, give parents a choice (as though parents haven't always had a choice). What it does, in actuality, is give parents a choice without the parents having to make any sacrifices. The Me Decaders are all grown up.

The Legislature has decided that it will gamble with the education of an entire generation of Arizona kids just to see if this charter-school thing can work. So far, I give the charter-school idea a B-minus, and the execution thereof somewhere in the D range. The execution grade would probably be a little bit higher were it not for the fact that the state of Arizona has lost untold millions of dollars to unscrupulous, fly-by-night operations that benefited from a near-total lack of state oversight.

Of those charter schools that did not blink in and then out of existence, lingering just long enough to cash the state's checks, some are awful; some are OK; a couple are above average; and then there's BASIS, the best darned high school in the country ... I guess.

I've long been an avid reader of the annual U.S. News and World Report list of the best colleges in the country. That magazine uses a relatively intricate formula to put together its list and tweaks the formula from time to time in an effort to be as accurate as possible. When I read about BASIS, I couldn't wait to see the formula that Newsweek had used to list the top high schools.

The magazine starts with the total number of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Cambridge tests taken by students at the school, divides by the number of people in the graduating class, and then ... well, that's it. That's the only criterion. No listing of classes offered, no graduation rates, no extracurricular activities (sports, theater, music, art, drama) that can help shape young people's lives, no student government, no community service. Nothing but tests.

If that focus were any narrower, Nicole Richie would have to turn sideways to pass through.

Not only that, but Newsweek doesn't even care how the students did on the tests; all that matters is how many tests were taken, and how many seniors are moving on. How easy would that be to rig?

And why that particular criterion? Do they realize that they could fix it so that just about any school could win the honor? If it was the ratio of Lexus cars in the student parking lot to the number of Hondas in the teacher parking lot, Catalina Foothills would be the No. 1 high school in America. Or if you multiplied the state championship wrestling trophies in the trophy case times the number of last month's graduates who will be attending an Ivy League school in the fall, it would be Sunnyside in the Top 10, and not BASIS.

As it turns out, as I wrote this, my son was playing Halo with a friend of his, Alan, who had attended BASIS before transferring to a real high school, one where he could take AP tests and play soccer. He said he liked it at BASIS, but that all they pretty much did there was prepare to take AP exams.

"I tried to get them to start a soccer team, but there weren't a lot of jocks; most of the kids were zoned in on passing as many AP tests as they could," Alan remembers. "I had friends who were talking about getting out of college when they were 19 or 20. I used to say, 'Why?'"

BASIS stands for Builds Academic Success In School. They decided on BASIS because Nerdhaven was already taken. They'd better be glad they don't get points deducted for lame acronyms.

There's also another branch of the school in Scottsdale. According to reports, enrollment at both campuses is growing by leaps and bounds. (Not that any of the students can actually perform leaps and bounds.) But not everybody is an athlete or a musician.

I congratulate BASIS on the recognition, but as for Newsweek, I have to say that's a pretty dumb way to pick a smart school.

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