Opinion: You can assess the quality of a school in 2 ways – the less popular option is the smarter

When parents are looking for information to help them choose a good elementary or secondary school for their child, they often turn to a variety of online sources.

Parents can also rely on popular school rating websites such as GreatSchools.org, Niche.com, or US News & World Report’s K-12 School Directory, which claims to help parents find the “best.” schools for their child.

As a researcher specializing in education policy, I see some shortcomings in the number of these websites that present the quality of the school to the public. I’m interested in the types of information parents use to make decisions about school. I also study how parental decisions about which school to choose for their child can influence student diversity within schools.

Along with fellow education researcher Jeffrey Henig, I conducted a survey of a nationally representative sample of 2,800 parents or caregivers of children under age 12. With financial support from the Spencer Foundation and technical assistance from YouGov, we incorporated an experiment into the survey to see how enrollment decisions might vary if parents chose schools based on different types of student data. school performance.

Specifically, we allowed parents to examine a school’s academic performance in two different ways: achievement level and performance growth. Achievement status is based on students’ current levels of academic achievement, while achievement growth considers students’ academic achievement over time.

We’ve found that when parents are provided with information about achievement growth, they tend to choose schools that are not only more effective at teaching their students, but also more demographically diverse.

Status vs Growth

In order to make more informed choices for their children, parents need to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of these two ways of measuring the academic performance of schools. But many websites intended to help parents choose schools — whether government or commercial sites — offer information only on the status of the results.

Achievement status refers to the academic performance of each student at a given time. For example, 50% of fifth graders in a hypothetical school might be proficient in reading, as measured by the annual state reading test. Measures of achievement status like this provide a rough understanding of how well students are doing in the subjects tested.

However, the level of achievement tells the public little about how schools are contributing to student learning. Students face different obstacles inside and outside of school, such as the challenges of poverty and racial discrimination, and they enter school with different levels of preparation. As a result, schools with relatively high achievement levels tend to be disproportionately white and wealthy.

Achievement growth, on the other hand, refers to the rate of change in each student’s academic performance from year to year. Consider the same hypothetical school where 50% of fifth graders are fluent in reading. But the previous year, when these same students were in CM1, only 40% had mastered reading. There is something very positive going on at this school, but people would miss it if they focused exclusively on the 50% proficiency rate. Rather than looking at results from a single year, achievement growth measures changes like this over time.

Some researchers argue that growth is a better measure of school effectiveness than status. For example, education researcher Morgan Polikoff noted how indicators of achievement status, like proficiency rates, “essentially measure who is enrolled in a school, rather than how well the school is educating them.” .

“Because these status measures only capture students’ current performance levels, proficiency rates correlate strongly with students’ socioeconomic status and other demographics,” Polikoff wrote. “Growth-based measures, on the other hand, can show student changes from year to year and better demonstrate the school’s effectiveness or contribution to student learning.”

There are about as many high-growth schools that disproportionately serve affluent students as there are high-growth schools that disproportionately serve low-income students.

In other words, the academic growth of a school has much less to do with who is enrolled in the school and more to do with what the school does to educate those students.

Some people might wonder if a school’s rate of growth in results simply reflects the fact that, for many schools serving disadvantaged students, those students may simply have more room for improvement. In fact, there are about as many high-growth schools that disproportionately serve affluent students as there are high-growth schools that disproportionately serve low-income students. It turns out that all students, regardless of background, have the same ability to learn and grow.

Towards more diverse schools

For my study, I asked participants to choose between three randomly selected schools in the same randomly selected school district somewhere in the United States. To guide this choice, participants were given a range of demographic information about each school, such as the percentages of white, black, and Hispanic students and the percentage of students eligible for free and discounted lunch — a common metric economic disadvantage. Additionally, some participants were randomly assigned to receive information about each school’s average status, average growth, or both.

What I’ve found is that when parents receive information about a school’s current academic performance, they tend to choose higher-status schools, which, on average, have more white students and from higher income families. However, when parents receive data on student growth, they tend to choose higher-growth schools, many of which serve larger proportions of low-income students and students of color.

For this reason, school rating websites that only provide pass status information essentially nudge families towards the whitest and wealthiest schools in a community. This exacerbates school segregation, especially if white and affluent families are more likely to have the economic means to decide where they want to live and where to send their children to school.

Increasingly, school districts and states have included growth data in their local school reports. In 2020, 43 states and the District of Columbia reported achievement growth information in their annual report cards.

However, with the exception of GreatSchools.org, most school assessment websites have yet to incorporate student achievement growth data into the range of information they provide.

Measuring growth has also been made more difficult by the COVID-19 pandemic. Notably, standardized annual tests were canceled in 2020 and frequently administered in modified formats in 2021. It will be more difficult – but not impossible – for states to accurately calculate growth for the next few years due to missing and modified tests. during the pandemic.

The future of growth data

Calculating student growth rates on tests is a technical and complicated process. The results are often difficult for many people to understand. The next step in my research is to identify more effective and intuitive ways to communicate growth data to the public.

David M. Houston is assistant professor of education at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. This was first published by The Conversation – “A new way to choose the best school for your child”.

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