In General Knowledge for the Family, School

School Ratings: Should You Research Them?

school ratings

With so much focus on education reform in the media lately, a lot of attention has been given to the topic of school ratings. Many people are surprised to learn that these ratings are actually a mixture of several different formulas and schemes that evaluate different criteria. Furthermore, while schools have been evaluated in different ways for centuries, school ratings in their most recent form have only been around for a couple of years.

School Ratings: A Brief History

Until the late 1800s, there were virtually no formal systems of ranking public or private schools. Most people were considered fortunate if they had the opportunity to attend a school. The advent of educational reform meant that many people, including politicians and educators, began looking at the quality of education that was received at schools.

A Background on Accreditation

One of the first systems of school ranking was accreditation. Organizations would name the criteria that they believed was necessary to have a good school, then award an accreditation  prize or spot to any school that was willing to prove they met the criteria. There were numerous organizations that offered accreditation prizes, including a variety of churches, religious groups, educational reformers, and civil rights groups. By the early 1900s, many state governments had their own accreditation boards for their public schools.

Typical criteria included minimum standards for the education level of school staff and teachers, requirements of the square footage allotted for classroom space per pupil, and varying sets of curriculum requirements. Over time, the list of requirements grew longer, and accreditation boards were condensed into a handful of organizations that offered the status. Public schools were required to be accredited by their home state, and private schools often had the option of choosing government accreditation or accreditation by another secular or religious body.

This system served to make sure that all schools were meeting basic requirements. In fact, this system is what led to the rapid adoption of many educational reforms that we take for granted today. These include certifying teachers via exam, separating classrooms for each grade level, and having a set of basic graduation requirements.

The system only allowed parents and students to know whether or not a school met this basic set of requirements. There were few statistics showing high school graduation rates, much less any data showing how those students’ knowledge or education is compared to those at other schools.

The Civil Rights Movement began to change this. As many Southern states argued that their school systems were separate yet equal, a growing number of critics began to demand that they prove the schools were providing the same education. As a result, a number of people and organizations began to propose ways to evaluate and compare students at different schools.

Today, many of these ideas are still part of our school ratings system. Many public school ratings take race into account, as well disparities in economic situation and parental education. The current system, however, has a lot of room for improvement.

What Is a School Ranking?

The original intent of a school ranking system was to easily evaluate the quality of a variety of schools that taught students from very different backgrounds. Essentially, it’s believed that an ideal school ranking system could compare a rural elementary school in New Mexico to an elementary school in New York City. Whether or not any school ranking system has actually accomplished this, however, is a matter that is up for a lot of debate.

In general, a school ranking system starts by establishing the criteria that it will use to rank the schools. Simply choosing this criteria can be a lengthy and politically charged process. Every ranking system is different, and the criteria used to evaluate each of the components listed below can change from year to year. Furthermore, there is debate on each of the following issues regarding how much they should “count” in school rankings.

Standardized Tests

One of the most famous measures of a school’s performance is the standardized test. These exams can be expensive and time-consuming to administer, and don’t take into account the unique circumstance of the children taking them. Minorities, non-English speakers, and poor students tend to score lower on these exams. While high test scores can indicate that a school is actually educating students, it can also indicate that the entire educational process has been taken over by test prep.

Teacher Evaluations

Having a panel of evaluators come into a classroom and assess the job that the teacher is doing can be a good way to evaluate a class. However, it is also time consuming, expensive, and hard to do accurately. Most teacher evaluation systems are reliant upon colleagues of the teachers to do the evaluations. Furthermore, it’s also very hard to judge a teacher’s overall performance based on a few classroom visits.

Disadvantaged Groups

This is by far one of the most controversial aspects of some school ranking systems. Because other methods of evaluation can be influenced by the number of poor, minority, disabled, or otherwise disadvantaged groups, many school ranking systems assign extra points (or in some cases take away points) to school that serves these students.

It’s true that this can help school boards to determine which schools have problems in their staffing or curriculum. Nevertheless, it can give the parents of these students the false impression that their child is receiving the same education as a child from a school where evaluation criteria are higher. It has also been argued that this method can discourage a school that serves these groups from setting higher achievement for their students.

Class Size

A lot of research has suggested that smaller classes can help struggling students. For this reason, some school ratings include the average class size as on the metrics they use in their formulas. The size of a class, however, does not give a lot of real data about how the individual students perform. There are plenty of schools with high student to teacher ratios that have very high achievement, and plenty of schools with very low ratios with low achievement.

Parent and Student Evaluations

Parents and students are mailed surveys asking about their satisfaction with their school. These surveys can reveal a lot of specific data about a school, but the overall picture they create can be very subjective. Most notably, many schools with low achievement but great relationships between the staff and parents have done very well in these type of evaluations.

Individual school districts, states, private organizations and the federal government use different combinations of these factors, as well as several others, to rate schools. Because the criteria are so different, it is possible for schools to have several different rankings that conflict with each other.

How Are School Ratings Used?

Despite the fact that school ranks can be deeply flawed and highly controversial, there is a growing movement to use them to reform education.  One of the most common uses of these rankings is to demand that schools with low ratings be reformed or shut down. Several high profile cases of this have occurred in cities such as Chicago, Washington DC, and Detroit.

Another popular movement has called for schools with great school ratings to be forced to be opened to enrollment to children who were previously sent to schools with low ratings. The idea is that this will make a quality education more accessible to everyone regardless of where they come from. Many school districts have struggled with the added expense of these policies, however.

School ratings will most likely continue to be used for the next several decades. As parents become more concerned with the quality of their children’s education, these ranking will become more scrutinized.

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