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School Ranking Websites Do a Disservice to our Public Schools

The site is still up, despite comments from me and several others from the PPS-SF community explaining our concerns that their high school ranking site harms many excellent public high schools in our city! Please help me SHUT DOWN the Misleading High School Quality Web Site.

Recently, on the Parents for Public Schools website, I heard about a new education website called Similar to Great Schools (another site I loathe), the site purports to analyze “the quality of public high schools in San Francisco while focusing on key attributes like curriculum rigor, course variety and student support.”

If you have ever met me, you will quickly learn that school and district data is a topic that is near and dear to my heart. I recently left my position at the SFUSD Achievement Assessment Office where I had access to district data for all schools on all district assessments. There I learned to slice and dice it in various ways. We also discussed ways to report out on student data to various stakeholders in our community: district leaders, principals, teachers and parents. Before that I worked with Oakland Unified Schools District and Education Trust West (and national non-profit education advocacy organization with a lot of credentials) analyzing senior transcript data for all its students.

I’m not as advanced at data analysis as some, but I have more than my share of experience using data to inform strategic thinking on education planning and policy and have worked with teachers, schools and districts in using data to inform instructional practice.

In my work, I’ve learned there are many key questions that must be asked when working with student performance data:

  • What is the most pertinent information that needs to be shared?
  • How does this data break down over time? By socio-economic status? By home language? By race or ethnicity?
  • What does this information reveal? What is missing?

Knowledge is power, and great data shared in responsible ways can support important organizational change. That said, we have all seen how data shared in irresponsible ways can mislead and misinform. (Bill O’Reilly comes to mind.)

So, I went to the website to see it for myself.

Schools Serving Low-Income Students Get Thrown Under the (School)Bus… Again

What I found was the opposite of informative, and is just another way to push schools that serve low-income students to the bottom of the list.

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GradeEdge reports say they provide information to parents to help them choose a good school for their child. What they’re really doing is reinforcing negative assumptions about schools that serve low-income students.

As you can see from the report, Lowell and SOTA (surprise!) top-ranked, with schools like Galileo and Balboa scoring average at best. But what data is this based on? Nowhere on the site is information provided on the sources of the data or the credentials of the people analyzing it.

GradeEdge reports say they provide information to parents to help them choose a good school for their child. But what they are really doing is reinforcing negative assumptions about schools that serve low-income students. See the breakdown below…

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As you can see, one of the top ranked schools based on GradeEdge is also one with the LOWEST percentage of low-income students.

As you can see, one of the top ranked schools based on GradeEdge is also one with the LOWEST percentage of low-income students. Is student academic performance at SOTA’s based on high quality teaching? In some cases, I’m sure. But is instruction that much better than high schools like Burton or Balboa? There is no way to tell, because one of the greatest determinants in student performance is parental income and education level.

Reports like these often make very good schools look “low-performing” simply because they serve low-income students. This is not only unfair, it’s irresponsible because it often leads anxious parents to have incorrect negative assumptions about some very good schools.

Nowhere on the site was I able to find information to some very key questions:

What sources does this data come from? What year? What measures? How is it used to calculate a ranked score? Anyone who understands how to responsibly share data knows you need to include the source of the data presented. The short video that’s embedded in the site explains that there are lots of “experts” (Harvard grads, UC Berkeley Ph.Ds) who are “parents” who’ve analyzed this data. No where do I see actual names, credentials or contact information. (?)

What publicly available data was used to support Academic measures? We have not had an end of year test for over a year now as we transition to new end-of-year assessments (Can you say: Smarter Balanced Assessments?). Other measures could have been used. What are they? How recent are they? Does the data only show performance for students overall, or is it broken down by parent education level, race or socio-economic status? These are all important factors when looking at aggregate data on “school performance”. Nonetheless, no information is provided.

How does socioeconomic status of students impact a school’s ranking? As I mentioned above, parental income and education level are the single greatest factor in predicting student performance on academic measures. GradeEdge’s report clearly shows schools ranked by “academics” and student income; schools at the top of the academic list (Lowell and SOTA) are also have the least low-income students. Their high performance may have something to do with great teachers. It may also have something to do with the students themselves. There is no way to tell how GradeEdge calculates scores.

Sites Like These are Dangerous Because They Hurt our Public Schools

Even though there is no contact information on the site there were many buttons to allow viewers to post the report to various social media sites. Reports like this only reinforce for parents that schools like Lowell and SOTA are “the only good schools in the district” and that schools like Galileo and Mission are fair to poor. I know from working in our schools that this is not true. There are many dedicated, creative and wonderful teachers in schools that lower ranked schools listed in the report, and there are many happy students and parents receiving an excellent education in them.

Sites like GreatSchools and GradeEdge push middle and upper income families out of urban public schools because they reinforce false messages that most of our schools are “failing”. These types of reports also reinforce the idea that schools with low income kids are bad. Affluent and college-educated families opt out of low-income schools which further segregates district schools by race and socio-economic status. Instead of informing parents, these sites hurt all of us by reinforcing the divide between the HAVEs and HAVE-NOTs in our public education system.

I joined Parents for Public Schools (PPS-SF) because I believe there are MANY great public school options.

As one parent on the PPS-SF listserve commented:

“I think it’s misleading to compare such different types of schools against each other in this way. While parents and students have a choice of where to apply, it should indicate somewhere that there is separate criteria needed in order to get into schools like Lowell and SOTA. They are not necessarily open to all students, only those that “qualify”.

Despite what many anxious parents have to say, kids don’t have to “win the lottery” or opt out of public schools to get a great education. The types of school ranking reports that GradeEdge and GreatSchools provide are harmful to PPS-SF’s mission to educate families about the multitude of options that the SFUSD system provides.

Instead of creating ranking systems, we should be educating parents on the criteria to consider when choosing a school for ones child, for including:

  • How effective is the site leadership? How are teachers managed and supported?
  • What types of support services are students offered?
  • How large is the school? What are average class sizes?
  • What is the instructional philosophy of the school?
  • How welcoming is the school for parents? How engaged are students in their learning?

These questions don’t yield answers that fit into neat spreadsheets or checkboxes. Nonetheless, they are worth asking as they are at the heart of what makes a successful school. Instead of “doing the thinking” for parents by ranking schools with cool infographics, we should educate parents about how to think about their educational choices, so they can find the “best” school for their individual child’s needs.

What do you think? Does any of this make sense to you?

Related reads: Intellectual Apartheid: Dependent vs. Independent LearnersWhy We Can’t Talk About Honors Programs without Talking About Race

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