Our Take / Published Dec 17, 2019

In Defense of School Ratings

At EdNavigator, we spend a lot of time thinking about school grades and performance ratings. Seriously, a lot: How they could be more useful for families, how they should balance proficiency vs. growth, how states sometimes totally mess them up, how well-intentioned schools and districts occasionally use them in ways that confuse families, and more—even whether ski slope-style ratings might offer a useful model.

We take such an interest because school ratings represent a critical source of information for the families our Navigators support every day. One of the first questions we ask parents new to EdNavigator is whether they know the state grade of their child’s school. Most do not. Some are not even aware that schools get graded. This isn’t because they are disinterested; it’s because they are busy people who have plenty of other things occupying their attention, and because school systems and states generally aren’t successful in pushing this information out to families proactively.

So we ask, and if they don’t know, we tell them and help them understand what the grades mean. Sometimes these conversations spark action, prompting parents to start exploring other options. Sometimes they confirm what families already know from experience. Almost always, they provide important context for understanding individual students’ learning needs.

For all these reasons, we were alarmed to read a recent Chalkbeat article on how the popular nonprofit school rating website GreatSchools.orgnudges families towards schools with fewer Black and Hispanic students.” The well-researched piece zeroes in on the essential quandary of GreatSchools’ ratings:

“They are available to all, which means they can help low-income families choose a school or pressure officials to make improvements. But they can also help affluent families cement access to areas other families cannot afford, while bolstering stereotypes that schools in certain neighborhoods are uniformly of poor quality.”

We sometimes use GreatSchools data in our own work, as a supplement to state grades and other information. That’s because (and this is an important point), no single grade or rating can ever paint the full picture of a school. It doesn’t matter if it’s a GreatSchools 1-10 rating, an A-F rating from a state department of education, or some other measure. The very act of distilling a school down to one number or grade is inherently reductive. It will always be flawed, always imperfect.

And yet, that distillation is also precisely what makes school grades useful for families trying to make actual decisions. It’s easy to say parents should tour schools, talk to other families, take a look at the data behind the grades, or ask questions of principals when deciding which school is right for them (indeed, our Navigators encourage families to take exactly these kinds of steps if they can). It’s especially easy, though, if you’re fortunate enough to have time and transportation to get to multiple schools, the resources to know what questions to ask, or internet access and a computer to sort through school information websites that may not be easy to look at on a mobile phone or available in your language.

What parents want is clarity and simplicity. They want to make the best decisions they can for their kids, but they are barraged with confusing and contradictory information. When it’s time to make a high-stakes decision about where to rent an apartment, buy a house, or submit a list of their preferred schools, they want something that makes it easy to understand and compare how schools are doing. That’s why GreatSchools has become so prevalent: It fills that need and gives parents confidence that some reasonable (if imperfect) standard lies behind the ratings.

So what are we supposed to do? In our view, the answer is not for GreatSchools or anyone else to withdraw their school ratings or shift to harder-to-understand labeling systems. As the authors of the article note, the patterns of segregation and opportunity hoarding that we all find so concerning long predate the rise of GreatSchools itself, and obscuring or removing this type of information would only further advantage privileged families who have other means of finding out what they want about schools (or encourage them to use even blunter measures). Instead, here’s what we’d like to see:

  • Better ratings: The article notes several ways that GreatSchools ratings can sometimes fail to reflect the successes of schools that are serving disadvantaged students well. Those types of issues should be addressed and fixed.
  • More family feedback: When we’re talking about schools with families, what they really want to know, beyond the school grade, is how other families feel about it. GreatSchools offers space for current parents and school staff to provide comments, but many schools have relatively few or are dominated by comments that are years old—and the ratings themselves don’t reflect family feedback. We would like to see more districts and states conduct and publicize family surveys that could offer another source of insight and data.
  • Counter-“nudging”: If the problem is that parents look past schools that could be a good fit in favor of those that simply earn the highest ratings, why not build in features that attempt to counter those patterns (for example, by highlighting nearby schools that may not perform as well overall but have high student growth, a history of improvement, or unique programs or characteristics that may not be reflected in the rating itself)?
  • Customizable filters: Wouldn’t it be great if you could tell GreatSchools what YOU care about most, and see schools rated according to those criteria? To start, GreatSchools could institute more sophisticated filtering on its school search page. Right now, the site displays schools in order of their overall rating by default. Enabling users to sort or filter by diversity of student body, size of school, family satisfaction, or other criteria would help.
  • Diverse perspectives: GreatSchools shouldn’t be the only game in town. Parents should always be able to get another take, whether it is the state’s grade or a rating from another independent source. In New Orleans, for instance, parents can access information from the Louisiana Department of Education, GreatSchools, or the New Orleans Equity Index, which enables them to view schools based on factors like the diversity of their teaching faculty. GreatSchools might even list some of these resources to families based on location.
  • Family support: No one should get advice about schools from a real estate agent. More to the point, we should make sure that families who have historically had limited access to educational opportunity have someone they can turn to for professional guidance when they have questions or are making big decisions. GreatSchools could include such resources and also incorporate video guides or tips on its school search and profile pages, to help parents make sense of what they’re reading and put the school ratings into context.

When families get clear information about schools and help interpreting it, the impact can be powerful. Recently, one of our Boston Navigators met with “Angie,” a mom whose family had moved out of Boston to a nearby suburb and enrolled her children in a local public school based primarily on its convenient location. In their first meeting, her Navigator shared the school’s rating from the state department of education, walking her through data about discipline patterns, graduation rates, teacher retention, and student growth. Angie had never heard of the state’s annual rating system before, but while discussing the details, she started to open up about her experiences with the school and suddenly felt empowered by the data.

Her Navigator helped her look up other schools near her home, and after some research, she discovered that the school closest to her had significantly higher rates on the state test than the school her children were currently attending. She also realized that the school was a lot more racially and socioeconomically diverse, an attribute she wanted in the school she chose for her kids. “If I had known this data existed, and that I was allowed to visit schools before making a decision,” Angie said, “I would have fought for a stronger school for my children. I will try my best to support them in the areas where the school is struggling, but I may want to consider switching them next year."

For Angie, the problem wasn’t that the school ratings were overly simplistic or biased in favor of some schools over others. They aren’t prompting her to move, or to take her kids out right away (although her next step was to schedule school visits to get a look at the other nearby schools with her own eyes). She got to decide for herself what mattered. The problem was she didn’t know the information was even available, and she didn’t get the support she really needed to make use of it when it could have been most helpful. So whether they’re GreatSchools' ratings, state ratings, or anything else, let’s make them as accurate and nuanced as possible—but let’s also focus on ensuring they are truly useful and accessible to all families.