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GreatSchools” Not So Great Premise: Standardized Test Mirror “Greatness”

June 11, 2018

I have often blogged about the absurdity of rating schools based on easy to collect data, especially when that data is standardized test scores. A recent Medium post by Ali McKay, The Problem with “GreatSchools”, describes the flaws with the rating algorithm that “service” uses. Ms. McKay, who describes herself as “A white lady with kids digging into the practices of equity and anti-racism”, decries the Great Schools ratings. After describing the warmth and inclusiveness of her low rated racially and socio-economically integrated school, (by GreatSchools scheme), she offers this insight:

So what, exactly, is GreatSchools measuring? Mostly socioeconomic status, it turns out. In fact, Jack Schneider, an historian and researcher who studies schools, has written that factors the schools can control usually explain only about 20% of test scores. That means at least sixty percent of test scores is determined by socioeconomic status. Low income students will tend to score lower and high income students will score higher — and this is regardless of where they go to school. Much has been written about why, but, as just one example, researchers have found that poverty affects kids’ language environments. And, middle and upper class parents are, from day one, cultivating their kids’ language and other skills, setting them up to stay in the middle or upper class.

Ms. McKay, in the spirit of fairness, does note that GreatSchools is aware of the problem and attempting to address it:

GreatSchools seems to be aware that there may be a problem, and changed their ratings late in 2017 to include an equity component. This component accounts for 28% of a school’s rating… Their website says:“We believe that every parent — regardless of where they live or how much money they make — needs reliable information in order to ensure their child is being served by their school.” They have many pictures of Black and Brown families on their site.

Ms. McKay doesn’t “do the math”, but clearly the 28% factor is mathematically unlikely to identify a “low performing school” that effectively differentiates instruction into a higher classification. It DOES provide a fig leaf to indicate they are open to data beyond standardized test. But, as Ms. McKay notes elsewhere in her essay, it is a very small fig leaf given that:

…(standardized test) scores… account for 47% of GreatSchool’s school rating for elementary schools (and a whopping 72% if you add in their ‘Student Progress’ on tests factor). This means that (their ratings) are mostly telling you to find high socioeconomic students and avoid lower socioeconomic students (and English language learners, kids who qualify for special education services, and so on . . .).

So if these scores are only a proxy for affluence, what is a parent to do if they are seeking a school that includes a mixed demographic? Ms. McKay offers a common sense approach:

Take the two tour pledge: set foot inside two schools. You wouldn’t buy a house without going in it, so why do so with your child’s education? When we were deciding on our current school, we toured and we talked to teachers and parents. It didn’t take that much time, and walking around and seeing the actual people in the building was the most important factor for us.

Second, remember that parents tend to pass along the dominant narratives, whether they are actually true or not.They will tell you a school is “good” or “bad”, even though they might not have ever been in the school they are talking about… Researchers like Jennifer Jellison Holme and others have found this to be true(i.e. that families listen to and value a school based on what other privileged parents say about it).

And then, investigate your values and your goals for your kids. I am guessing your goals for your kids when they are 50 is not that they had high test scores. Like me, you probably want a lot more than that for them. Like me, you might be anxious about academics or anxious that not being around high achieving peers or watching screen time at school sometimes (gasp!) will hurt their prospects as adults in a competitive world. Anxiety is a small price to pay for seeking justice and dismantling systems of segregation and racism. And, it makes me feel icky but it bears repeating: socioeconomically advantaged kids will get high test scores wherever they are, because of the luck of their birth.

From my perspective we need more parents to take on that icky feeling and acknowledge that where their kids go to high school will have less bearing on the household they come from and the friends they make when they are in school… and that friendships with children of different races and socio-economic status are only possible if their children attend schools that are not economically and racially homogenous.

And here’s the challenge for GreatSchools and the education reformers who help underwrite it: choices about schools would vanish IF public education was funded adequately and affluent parents acknowledged that their children would not suffer if they attended school with those of other races and economic backgrounds. That was the vision of our founders, who hoped that democracy and upward mobility would be maintained through a public school system that served ALL children equally.

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