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The Conversation: You can assess the quality of a school in 2 ways — the least popular option is the smarter one

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

For instance, they may check out state government websites that provide “report cards” on local schools. Examples include Virginia’s School Quality Profiles or Ohio’s School Report Cards.

Parents might also rely on popular school rating websites like GreatSchools.orgNiche.com or U.S. News & World Report’s K-12 schools directory, which claims to help parents find the “best” schools for their child.

As a researcher who specializes in education policy, I see some shortcomings with how many of these websites portray school quality to the public. I’m interested in the kinds of information that parents use to make school-related decisions. I also study how parental decisions about which school to select for their child might influence student diversity within schools.

Along with fellow education researcher Jeffrey Henig, I conducted a survey with a nationally representative sample of 2,800 parents or caretakers of children under age 12. With financial support from the Spencer Foundation and technical assistance from YouGovwe embedded an experiment in the survey to see how enrollment decisions might vary if parents chose schools based on different kinds of academic performance data.

More specifically, we enabled parents to look at a school’s academic performance in two different ways: achievement status and achievement growth. Achievement status is based on students’ current levels of academic performance, whereas achievement growth considers students’ academic performance over time.

We found that when parents are given 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

To make more informed choices for their children, parents need a better understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of these two ways to measure schools’ academic performance. But many websites meant to help parents choose schools – whether government or commercial sites – offer information about only achievement status.

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

However, achievement status does not tell the public much about how schools contribute to student learning. Students face different obstacles both 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 status tend to be disproportionately white and wealthy.

Achievement growth, on the other hand, refers to the rate of change in individual students’ academic performance from one year to the next. Consider the same hypothetical school where 50% of the fifth graders are proficient in reading. But the year before, when those same students were fourth graders, only 40% were proficient in reading. Something very positive is happening in this school, but people would miss it if they focused exclusively on the 50% proficiency rate. Rather than looking at the 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 instance, education researcher Morgan Polikoff has noted how indicators of achievement status, like proficiency rates, “essentially measure who is enrolled in a school, rather than how well the school is doing at educating them.”

“Because such status measures merely capture the current performance levels of students, proficiency rates are highly correlated with student socioeconomic status and other demographics,” Polikoff has written. “Growth-based measures, on the other hand, can show students’ year-to-year changes and better demonstrate the school’s effectiveness or contribution to student learning.”

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

In other words, a school’s academic growth has much less to do with who’s enrolled at the school and more to do with what the school is doing to educate those students.

Some people might wonder whether a school’s rate of achievement growth merely reflects the fact that, for many schools serving disadvantaged students, those students may just have more room to grow. In fact, there are roughly as many high-growth schools that serve disproportionately affluent students as there are high-growth schools that serve disproportionately low-income students. As it turns out, all students – no matter their backgrounds – have a similar capacity to learn and grow.

Toward more diverse schools

For my study, I asked participants to choose between three randomly selected schools drawn from the same randomly selected school district somewhere in the United States. To guide this choice, participants received 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 reduced-price lunch – a common measure of economic disadvantage. In addition, some participants were randomly assigned to receive information about each school’s average status, average growth, or both.

What I found is that when parents are provided with information about a school’s current academic performance, they tend to choose higher-status schools, which, on average, have more students who are white and from families with higher income. However, when parents are provided with student growth data, 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 provide only achievement status information are essentially nudging families toward the whitest and most affluent 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 kids to school.

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

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

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

The future of growth data

Calculating students’ rates of growth 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 of communicating growth data to the public.

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

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