NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Arizona School Outperforms Shanghai on International Exam

October 4, 2013

While most U.S. schools struggled to reach even an average score on a key international exam for 15 year olds in 2012, BASIS Tucson North, an economically modest, ethnically diverse charter school in Arizona, outperformed every country in the world, including Shanghai, China's academic gem, says June Kronholz, a former Wall Street Journal foreign correspondent, bureau chief and education reporter.

Fifteen years after its founding by two economists, the BASIS network already roosts in the scholastic stratosphere.

  • The Tucson charter school outscored all 40 countries that administered the 2012 PISA, or Programme for International Student Assessment exam, with a mean math score of 618 -- 131 points above the U.S. average. Its 10-year-old Scottsdale sister school scored even higher: 51 points above the metropolitan Shanghai area in math and 42 points higher in science.
  • BASIS students take an average of 10 Advanced Placement (AP) exams each, and in 2013 earned an average score on them of 3.9 out of 5.
  • Princeton, Dartmouth, Brown, Harvard and Williams all accepted at least one of the 54 students in the 2013 graduating class, some of them on full scholarships; Stanford accepted four.

BASIS schools are open admission and operate on a shoestring budget: the Arizona schools operate on about two-thirds of the average funding for a child in a traditional public school. Classes are large: up to 30 students in middle school. Technology is "akin to cuneiform tablets," says Scottsdale's head of school, Hadley Ruggles.

The BASIS curriculum and its hard-charging teachers go a long way toward explaining the schools' success. Fifth graders take Latin and can expect 90 minutes a day of homework. Middle schoolers have nine hours a week of biology, chemistry and physics. Algebra starts in 6th grade; AP calculus is a graduation requirement. The English curriculum separates literature and language, or critical thought; high schoolers take both. There are year-end comprehensives; fail even one and it means repeating the grade.

"We want to get as good as the best in the world," says Michael Block, the affable 71 year old who founded and heads the BASIS network. "Business holds itself to international standards. Why not schools?"

Source: June Kronholz, "High Scores at BASIS Charter Schools," Education Next, Winter 2014.


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