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Pandemic Puts Great School Ratings System at Risk

September 24, 2020

Matt Barnum’s recent Chalkbeat article, “GreatSchools overhauls its ratings in bid to reduce link with race and poverty”,  touts the changes to the Great Schools rating system for schools. But the title of this blog post is the real news… and is far more accurate.

The article offers a history of GreatSchools development and illustrates how its use by Zillow and other real estate sites has exacerbated the racial divide in schools because there is a correlation between affluence, race and the GreatSchools rating. As a Chalkbeat writer I am confident that Mr. Barnum knows why: it’s because there is a correlation between affluence, race and standardized test scores and standardized test scores are the heart of GreatSchools ratings. Indeed, their “overhaul” doesn’t change that link substantially: it builds on it by using “growth” metrics based on standardized test scores as the basis for he ratings!

The article glosses over this flaw, but does note near the end that GreatSchools will be in trouble if standardized tests are not administered in 2020-21 after being suspended in 2019-2020. In his concluding paragraphs, Barnum describes the problem thus:

As it makes these changes, GreatSchools is also facing an unprecedented challenge. State tests, which provide the data for GreatSchools’ ratings, were canceled last school year. The Trump administration has said it will likely require these tests this year, but some school officials are hoping that will change if Joe Biden is elected president.

Even if tests resume, one year of data will be missing. That puts GreatSchools in a tough spot, as its ratings may seem outdated and it will be difficult to calculate new growth scores. Two years of missing data would make things even more complicated.

“We are considering a lot of different options,” said (GreatSchools CEO Jon) Deane.

One thing the new rating system won’t change: Boiling a school down to a numerical rating is inherently fraught.

“What makes a school great isn’t just in the test scores; it’s in the intangibles or unmeasurable things that you feel when you’re in the building, but you can’t necessarily quantify,” (Shane) Knight, the (Knapp Elementary school) principal (in Denver CO), said. “To their credit, they’re trying to use the information they have to help parents make informed choices, and I value that.”

Mr. Knight is right to offer support to the school, but the practical reality is that data doesn’t really matter when one is selecting a school or a house. It’s “the intangibles or unmeasurable things” the ultimately determine what kind of house someone purchases and “the intangibles or unmeasurable things” that draw someone to a particular school. The best way to get a handle on those things is to walk through the house, walk through the neighborhood, or walk the school and get a sense of whether it’s a fit for you. Mr. Barnum’s assessment that “Boiling a school down to a numerical rating is inherently fraught” is correct… but he has, I am sure, done well for himself trying to do just that. And, I am hopeful his “overhaul” is in peril because of the pandemic… and that the rating games that rely on standardized test scores will soon come to an inglorious end.

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