Every year, the U.S. News and World Report’s ranking of the best high schools in the United States puts a spotlight on Scottsdale because Basis Scottsdale charter school perennially tops the list.
However, the list’s methodology has been regularly criticized in the past for favoring schools like Basis that serve a predominantly affluent student population, leading to some changes in methodology for the 2019 rankings.
That change has expanded the list to include many more public schools than in the past, though criticisms still remain.
In past rankings, only schools that met U.S. News’ requirements on state assessments and graduation rate were eligible to be ranked.
Those schools were then ranked based on their performance on the publication’s College Readiness Index, as measured by participation and performance on Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams.
U.S. News and World Report worked with research firm RTI International to modify the methodology for the 2019 rankings by looking at all public schools with 12th grade enrollment of 15 or more or sufficient enrollment in other grades during the 2016-17 school year.
Robert Morse, chief data strategist for U.S. News and World Report, said that “the new methodology expands the rankings so that all public high schools are eligible to be ranked, versus previous editions where 14 percent of eligible schools were ranked.”
The organization ranked over 17,000 schools in 2019 compared to 2,700 the previous year.
The schools were then ranked using six different criteria including graduation rates, college curriculum breadth and readiness; and math and reading proficiency and performance.
Ten percent of the weighted score was also allotted to underserved student performance, which looked at the outcomes for black, Hispanic and low-income students on state assessments.
For the first time in several years, Basis Scottsdale dropped out of the number-one high school in the nation slot, placing third in the national rankings.
Basis Scottsdale was still the number one high school in Arizona on the list. In total, Basis schools took the top seven spots in the state rankings.
According to U.S. News and World Report’s high school rankings, the highest-ranked public district high school in Scottsdale was Scottsdale Unified School District’s Chaparral High School at number 18.
SUSD’s Desert Mountain High School came in at number 21.
Cactus Shadows High School, in the Cave Creek Unified School District, was ranked number 45 and Horizon High School, in the Paradise Valley Unified School District, came in at number 60.
SUSD’s Arcadia High School (#69), Saguaro High School (#78) and Coronado High School (#207) round out the district schools on the list.
Another charter, Great Hearts Scottsdale Prep came in at number 62.
U.S. News and World Report rankings, and others like it, provide an easy avenue for parents to benchmark schools against one another.
But just the way the rankings are presented could distort the public’s perception of the schools on the list.
For instance, looking at Saguaro High School’s number 78 ranking may not accurately reflect the its performance relative to other schools in the state.
An alternative to the straight number ranking would be to look at the percentile ranking of each school, or what percentage of schools in the state ranked behind Saguaro.
Saguaro High School is in the 83rd percentile, meaning it ranked ahead of 83 percent of high schools in the state that were ranked.
Basis Scottsdale, as the number one ranked school in the state, was in the 99th percentile.
Chaparral High School, at number 18, and Desert Mountain, at number 21, were not far behind, placing in the 97th and 95th percentile, respectively.
The rest of the percentile rankings for Scottsdale high schools include Cactus Shadows (89th percentile), Horizon (86th percentile), Great Hearts Scottsdale Prep (85th percentile), Arcadia (84th percentile), and Coronado (51st percentile).
Even with those percentiles in mind, the rankings can unfairly penalize low-income schools.
Sherman Dorn, a historian of education policy at Arizona State University, said Arizona parents already have “two sources of mediocre information” in the state’s school grades and information from the website GreatSchools.org.
“None of them are great, and they all are affected by the socio-economic status in a school,” Dorn said.
This is reflected in the U.S. News rankings, with the schools with more affluent student populations typically ranking near the top of the list.
According to Arizona Department of Education Data, Basis Scottsdale, the number one ranked school in the state, had no students receiving free or reduced-price lunch in 2018.
Other schools higher in the rankings like Desert Mountain (7 percent) and Chaparral (5 percent) also had low numbers.
By comparison, Coronado High School, which ranked 207, had 69 percent of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch.
The way graduation rates are presented can also be misleading, according to some critics.
In 2017, the Grand Canyon Institute, a bipartisan Arizona education think tank, criticized the rankings for presenting graduation rates for Basis schools that could be seen as inflated, because it did not account for students that left the school between 9th and 12th grade.
Dorn said there can be debate about whether that is fair way to define graduation rate, but he acknowledged that finding a one-size-fits-all definition is problematic.
He said the adjusted cohort graduation rate definition was adopted into the Federal Register in 2008 as way to hold schools accountable for students that truly dropped out without punishing them for families that simply left the district for other reasons.
Dorn said this was primarily geared towards states much different from Arizona that do not have open enrollment.
Dorn also said that overall, U.S. News’ use of a one-size-fits-all criteria to rank schools against each other inherently disadvantages states like Arizona, which he characterizes as a “middle to high poverty state.”
Take student performance on AP and IB tests.
“Even among states with a high amount of child poverty, different states have different ways in which they encourage or support things like AP and IB testing,” Dorn said.
All five of SUSD’s high schools offer AP courses, and the district has an IB program at Desert Mountain that is open to students throughout the district.
But the fee schedule for the 2019-20 school year indicates that students are responsible for test fees for AP and IB exams, and those costs can be an issue.
Arizona offers $22 per exam for qualified low-income public school students that, along with a College Board fee reduction of $32, lowers a student’s overall out of pocket costs.
AP test exams cost $94 each in 2019, according to College Board.
IB tests require a $172 registration fee and $119 fee per test, according to International Baccalaureate.
“I’m somewhat skeptical of all rankings,” Dorn said, noting that the primary user of these types of rankings are actually real estate agents.
His advice for any parent considering schools for their child is to actually step foot on campus and engage with the schools they are considering.
“If you only make a decision based on any ranking system as opposed to actually planting your feet on the ground, you’re making a mistake,” Dorn said.
“Go ahead and use whatever data sources you have — neighbors, teachers you know, ranking systems — but you need to walk through the door and talk with people in the school.”