What Do Public School Rankings Really Mean?

The federal government looks at school test scores to determine if a school can access federal grants or funding. But can these rankings really reflect the education a child receives? Experts explain what school rankings actually show.

screenshot of greatschools website
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When your child is changing schools—either because they're graduating from one school and going to another or because your family is relocating—there's always some uncertainty involved. Will they thrive in their new environment? What is the school culture and climate like? How much emphasis is placed on academics versus creative arts, achievement versus growth, test scores versus love of learning? That's where school rankings come in; they are a tool we can use to measure a school's success, but do they work? Here's what you need to know.

What Is a School Ranking?

For parents wanting to know more about a school's overall quality, the internet is full of ratings and rankings on sites that assign performance scores to public schools across the country. Popular ones like GreatSchools rate schools based on a 10-point scale, while Niche gives schools a letter grade.

What goes into a rank?

Everything from test score performance to graduation rates is studied at the federal and state levels. But a lot of discretion is ultimately left to the individual districts regarding the specific achievement measures studied and tracked, says Terra Wallin, associate director for P-12 accountability and special projects at The Education Trust, a national nonprofit focused on closing education gaps. These numbers are often used to create district or school report cards through a state's department of education, all publicly available.

Some considerations on how well a K-12 school performs can (but don't always) include:

  • Standardized test scores in reading, writing, and science
  • Average class size and teacher-to-student ratio
  • Facilities including dining, sports, music, and other extracurricular activities
  • School funding, including cost per student

Ranking depends on what state you live in

There’s a great deal of variety in what individual states focus on, so you have to check your own school or district’s report card to know which measures are actually studied in your state. But as far as the federal government is concerned, test scores are very important. While schools aren’t required to do achievement or assessment testing, those test scores often determine if a school can access federal grants or funding.

So there can be a lot at stake in these numbers. But let's get down to business: what's actually making up those school rating numbers? And how reliably can the ratings predict whether your child will achieve their academic goals? The answers aren’t so black and white, experts say.

What’s Missing From School Ratings?

School ratings are often missing major pieces of the puzzle that currently aren't being captured in numeric form, says Jack Schneider, Ph.D., an education policy analyst and assistant professor at UMASS Lowell. Rankings essentially reduce schools to buckets of data instead of living, breathing institutions.

Jack Schneider, Ph.D.

"When we talk about 'good' schools, we are often thinking of our own self-interest, but we ought to be thinking about who we want our child to be and what kind of life we want them to have."

— Jack Schneider, Ph.D.

He says that test score performance, which is often heavily weighted, isn't an accurate indicator of a school's overall quality or how well-programmed the school is academically. It instead reveals more about school demographics, family incomes, and parental education levels.

Questions about ranking that parents should think about

"States should be collecting more information from schools about peer relationships, creative and performing arts opportunities, how students are growing as future citizens, and how well they work with others," says Dr. Schneider. "Asking 'Is this a good school?' is not a good question—good for what, and good for whom, are better questions."

Wallin agrees: "Any indicator of quality a district is using should be focused on how groups of students are performing: a school's test score doesn't reflect how individual groups are doing, so black or Latino or disabled students might be coming in much lower than the overall rating."

In other words, if a school isn't prepared to help all students achieve academic success, that gap won't necessarily be reflected in a numeric score or letter grade. That means it's up to parents to know what's going into the ratings they're reviewing on a school-by-school and even state-by-state basis (since the data measured varies widely from one state to the next).

How to Read Beyond the Ranking

The good news is that parents can still find information about a school independently. If you do like to see ratings, look beyond the number to the summary rating system on GreatSchools. It's based on a collection of data from state departments of education and the Civil Rights Data Collection, which includes standardized test scores and data on demographics, enrollment, discipline, and teacher experience, among others. From there, GreatSchools assembles the data into five sub-ratings: college readiness, test scores, equity, advanced courses, and attendance.

And at GreatSchools, there's less of an emphasis on test scores now than in recent years. Jon Deane, CEO of GreatSchools, says that in 2017, the organization shifted toward focusing on other measures, like equity and college readiness, based on demand from parents.

"Our role is to take the data we collect and put it into context for parents trying to understand the issues around school quality," says Deane. "Parents are our core users, and what we do is all in service of painting a broader picture for parents about how they can support their kids."

Jack Schneider, Ph.D.

Asking 'Is this a good school?' is not a good question—good for what, and good for whom, are better questions.

— Jack Schneider, Ph.D.

Don't just read the data—visit the schools too

Parents should also get out and see a school for themselves. Both Wallin and Dr. Schneider recommend visiting the school to see how it actually operates on a day-to-day basis. How engaged are the students in the curriculum, and how supported are they in their individual interests? Is there artwork hanging on the walls? Do the teachers seem happy, or is there a high staff turnover? How diverse is the student body? How caring and compassionate are the student-to-student and teacher-to-student relationships?

And, at the end of the day, don't forget to put on your critical thinking cap.

"I often recommend first that parents seriously think about where they want to live and if the neighborhood aligns with their values or is the environment they want their kid growing up in," says Dr. Schneider. "When we talk about 'good' schools, we are often thinking of our own self-interest, but we ought to be thinking about who we want our child to be and what kind of life we want them to have."

The Bottom Line

We can't totally dismiss school ratings—nor should we. They can provide valuable information to state and federal leaders working to improve education for all students. "School ratings are important because they convey expectations about school performance and can spur action when used for good," says Wallin. "They send a signal that a school needs to raise achievement for all students...not that long ago, underserved students were pretty invisible in terms of knowing how they were actually performing."

Rankings can be just as beneficial for families, but parents need to research how the ratings they look at are assembled. Wallin wants all parents to remember: "A single ranking can't tell you everything they need to know about a school."

Updated by Sarah Bradley
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