Why You Should Pay Zero Attention to the GreatSchools Rating System

Why You Should Pay Zero Attention to the GreatSchools Rating System August 31, 2016

I wrote yesterday about choosing a school in a segregated world. In response to some of the comments I received on that post, I want to take a moment to look more fully at school rating systems. While some states create their own school ratings (based on various factors), I’ve also seen many parents rely on the ratings available at the GreatSchools website, which bills itself as “the leading national nonprofit empowering parents to unlock educational opportunities for their child.” While I will be looking at the GreatSchools rating system specifically, but much of my criticism likely applies to various state rating systems as well.

What is the GreatSchools rating system based on? I’ll tell you. Test scores. That’s all—test scores. We know that student performance correlates strongly with students’ demographic factors—family income, race, level of parents’ education. This means that the GreatSchools rating system only provides information about the demographics of the students who attend this schools, and literally nothing about the quality of instruction, the school atmosphere, or, well, anything else.

I once spoke with a homeschool mother who had considered putting her children in public school after moving to another area of the country. She told me she had decided against doing so after looking up the GreatSchools rating. And that was it. She didn’t visit the school. She didn’t look at parent or student reviews of the schools. All she looked at was the GreatSchools rating, and all the GreatSchools rating was based on was test scores, and all those test scores tell us about is the demographics of the students, and—what do you know—the schools in that area were heavily Hispanic. What this means—yes—is that whether she realized it or not, she decided not to put her children in the local public schools because those schools weren’t white.

I am beyond appalled at GreatSchools’ rating system. That they can bill themselves as “the leading national nonprofit empowering parents to unlock educational opportunities for their child” while giving parents information that conflates race and class with school quality without telling parents this is what they are doing is utterly abhorent. Parents trust GreatSchools even as the nonprofit tells them which schools are good and which are bad based on the color of students’ skin and the amount of money in their parents’ bank accounts. This is completely and totally despicable. If I had stronger words to use here, I would. That this can go on in this day and age should be universally horrifying.

But wait—can’t test scores tell us at least a little bit? After all, students at a predominantly poor brown school with a vibrant school culture and dedicated teachers and staff will likely score better than students at a predominantly poor brown school with low expectations and a high turnover rate for teachers and staff. Similarly, student performance at non-poor white schools will likely vary depending on the responsiveness of the administration, the turnover rate among the staff, and the school atmosphere that is created. This is true! However, given the strength of demographic factors in shaping student outcomes, student scores are almost certainly still going to be higher at a stagnant non-poor white school than at a vibrant poor brown school, and as a result, the stagnant school will receive a higher GreatSchools rating than the vibrant school.

Let me give you an example. In one metropolitan area I looked at, there is a vibrant maths and sciences magnet high school in the city. This school is attended almost entirely by minorities, mostly black and Hispanic, and has an impeccable reputation with the students, the parents, and the community. But you know what? That school’s math and science scores are still far lower than those in high schools in the white suburbs. Does that mean those white suburban high schools are better schools than the predominantly poor brown magnet high school in the city? Not necessarily! All it tells us is that the students in the white suburban high schools they are whiter and wealthier than those at the innovative STEM magnet high school. And yet, it means that the poor brown magnet high school has a low GreatSchools rating while the white suburban high schools have high ratings.

When my daughter started kindergarten, she attended a elementary school with test scores far lower than those at the “good” schools in town. In fact, I learned right before she started school that 10% of the students were homeless in any given year, and the poverty rate was so high that all students were given access to the free lunch program. My daughter thrived, and I fell in love with the school. I could not have asked for better. When we moved, I used the demographic information the GreatSchools website provides, but I completely ignored test scores and rating system. We visited several elementary schools in person, and chose one that with both diversity and a positive and supportive school atmosphere. We couldn’t be happier with this school! Well guess what? I just checked, and this school has the lowest test scores of any elementary school in the district (and the highest minority population and highest student poverty rate). If I’d made made my decision based on the GreatSchools rating system, our family would have missed out on finding this gem.

What would a better rating system look like? At a minimum, a better rating system would correct for student’s demographic characteristics. In other words, a better rating system—one not based on students’ race and class, as this one is—would ask which schools perform better than would be expected given the students’ family income, race, and level of parent’ education. By this metric, a vibrant poor brown school would receive a higher rating than a stagnant non-poor white school. An even better rating system would find a way to factor in parents’ and students’ satisfaction with the schools. Do the parents feel the atmosphere is supportive? Do the students like to be there? Do parents feel their children are challenged? Do students feel that their teachers care about them? Is the administration responsive?

GreatSchools planning to improve its rating system by incorporating more data (and has done so with a handful of states already). However, the additional data they’re incorporating—college readiness and student growth—leaves much to be desired. A predominantly poor brown high school that prepares a higher proportion of its students for college than expected given its demographic factors is still not going to hit the college readiness marks white suburban high schools hit.

It’s possible that factoring in student growth may add nuance to the picture ratings tell, but student growth may also be a factor of demographic change—as an area becomes more poor and more brown, you would expect to see the school’s scores to fall, and vice versa if an area is gentrifying. This would be a reflection not of school quality but of students’ demographic factors. In addition, because achievement gaps widen over time, we know that white students on average currently achieve more student growth, meaning that student growth, too, correlates with race (and potentially other demographic factors).

Is there a reason GreatSchools is so resistant to factoring in student race and economic factors? It’s not that it doesn’t have that data—it does, and lists it on its website on each school’s profile. All it would have to do is create algorithms that factor that information in—that say, given the students’ race and the number of poor students, are these test scores above or below what we would expect? Factoring in parent and student reviews would be more difficult, of course. The GreatSchools website does have a “community rating” based on reviews left by users, but this system is far from scientific—some schools have only a few reviews while others have far many, and it’s unclear whether an individual need be affiliated with a school at all to leave a review.

In the end, the GreatSchools rating system is worse than worthless. The system lets parents think they’re learning about school quality when all they’re actually being told is the school’s demographic factors, and by doing so misleads parents who simply want the best for their children into contributing to school segregation. I’m not saying that every school is perfect. There are schools that have mismanaged administrations and high teacher turnover, punitive prison-like school atmospheres and a lack of expectations. There are also schools burdened by chronic lack of funding. But you cannot use a school’s demographic factors as a stand-in for this. There are white suburban schools where children feel squeezed or invisible, and poor brown schools that go out of their way to foster individual student success and effort.

What tips would I give if you’re thinking about buying into a neighborhood and want to make sure the schools are good? First, remember that attending a school with both race and class diversity benefits non-poor white children, too. Look at the school’s demographic factors (available on the GreatSchools website). Second, read parent and student reviews (also on the GreatSchools website). See if you can find other parent or student reviews elsewhere online. Third, visit the schools, talk to the staff, learn about how the school is run. Watch the children and the teachers. Do the children seem glad to be there? Do the teachers seem to care? If possible, speak with some of the parents. If you can’t do this, you could still call the office.

Note that none of this involves asking about the school’s reputation from afar. I’ve had numerous individuals, mostly white, express surprise at the school we chose for our daughter. That school? The one with all the poor brown kids? The one with the low test scores? Why yes! That school also happens to be one of the most supportive, innovative, inclusive schools I’ve ever encountered. Doing these things also does not involve paying any attention at all to test scores (or the GreatSchools rating system). Reading parent and student reviews and visiting the school should give you an idea of whether students there are supported, challenged, and inspired.

If you really must look at test scores? Make sure that you compare the scores to other schools with similar racial and economic demographics. That (and that alone) will make your assessment more accurate than that provided at GreatSchools.

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