Tim Steller: Let's keep the top ratings for Basis, University High schools in perspective

2013-05-05T00:00:00Z 2013-05-05T18:25:44Z Tim Steller: Let's keep the top ratings for Basis, University High schools in perspectiveTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
May 05, 2013 12:00 am  • 

It's an annual rite of self-congratulation. U.S. News and World Report ranks Basis Tucson and University High School among the best in the country.

Some news outlets trumpet it - we published the news of Basis' No. 2 ranking on the front page this year. Then schools update their websites with the ranking, though UHS hasn't yet clarified that it slipped from fourth last year to 29th this year.

You can count on me for polite applause and a sigh.

While it's a good thing overall that we in Tucson have two schools that regularly rank so highly, the rankings mean relatively little and are self-perpetuating.

Both Basis and UHS are selective - UHS formally so through an entrance exam and Basis informally so through high workloads that lead to attrition - meaning they end up with the students who perform highest at academics in the Tucson area. The rankings also reflect the number of kids taking Advanced Placement exams, an old-fashioned measure that doesn't necessarily reflect the best education available.

"They're gauging success on the fact that a lot of their kids take AP tests," Tucson education consultant Jonathan Martin, the former head of St. Gregory school, told me. "It's an absurd gauge."

Basis and UHS then use the rankings to attract the area's higher-performing students, which ensures that they'll be highly ranked again the next year. Both schools feature their rankings prominently on the opening page of their websites.

In the end, U.S. News and World Report is happy, the College Board, which runs the AP system, is happy, and the schools are happy.

But is it really measuring the best educational achievements, or even the best college preparation? Not necessarily. And it's certainly not measuring how much students' performance improves at their school - a more precise indicator of a school's impact on its students.

"AP has pulled the wool over people's eyes across the nation to believe that AP is the sole way to get to be college-ready," Dave DenHartog told me.

He's a Prescott resident who works for Expeditionary Learning, which sells its own curriculum to schools nationwide, including Sam Hughes Elementary in Tucson. It could be considered a competitor to the College Board.

AP, DenHartog said, "is about breadth of knowledge. It's a lot of material that you're going through and needing to memorize."

I remember this well, having taken some AP classes in high school. I think I highlighted every sentence in my AP American history textbooks.

What AP tests don't measure, DenHartog said, are characteristics such as "grit, perseverance, curiosity and work ethic."

"If you have those character pieces, that's what's going to get you through college," he said.

From its beginnings, Basis has been unabashedly enthusiastic about AP classes and tests, requiring all students to take them.

"We weren't well known, and this was a way to show we were nationally and internationally competitive right away, so (the schools) would get recognition," Julia Toews, head of school at Basis Tucson North told me.

Now the Basis schools require students to take eight AP courses before graduation, take six AP tests and pass at least one. Basis pays for the students' test fees.

That naturally helps Basis place high in the U.S. News rankings: The final factors in the rankings are the percentages of seniors who have taken AP tests and the percentage passing a test. Basis naturally rates 100 percent, since those are requirements for graduation.

But that's not why the school follows the AP program, Toews told me Friday. They're simply strong courses that give students at least a minimum level of mastery in the areas taught, she said.

"Taking a test forces you to ensure you have mastery," she said.

In her first role at Basis as a college counselor, Toews said, she saw how having AP exam scores allowed students there to catch the attention of colleges.

"AP allows for scrappy schools in Tucson to build a reputation," she said.

And I agree that's a good thing, as far as it goes. I just wish there were a similar ranking or award that celebrates schools that start with students of any ability and takes them to a much higher level of achievement.

If a couple of schools in Tucson started winning that sort of praise, I'd stand and applaud.

On StarNet: Find education-related resources and special reports at azstarnet.com/education

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@azstarnet.com or 807-8427. On Twitter @senyorreporter

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