educationvirtual children by Scott Warnock

School ratings: Your experience will be a 7.2

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Part 9 (of 874) in an occasional series about how standardized tests are destroying education.

Perhaps it’s surprising considering the U.S.’s supposed death spiral in mathematics, but we like numbers. We like the idea of pinning exactitude on things, on, you know, the right answer. And numbers lend themselves to lists and rankings. We like lists and rankings, particularly school rankings. From magazine stories about colleges to Websites about grammar schools, school lists abound. But what those lists and numbers don’t tell you at all is what kind of experience your individual kid will have at a school. Along the way, they may be committing serious, mean-spirited damage to lots of communities where real kids are trying to learn.

I have done a number of presentations for college teachers about what I call frequent, low-stakes grading: It’s a teaching approach in which you give students lots of small grades instead of a few big, high-stakes tests and papers. The idea behind it is what I see as an “assessment culture”: With the Web, we can and will assess anything publicly, and we like letting the world know that “This plumber was great” or “The pancakes were dry.” The Web, in this way, has tapped into a seeming need not only to assess but also to make one’s opinions known (ahem, all you blabby bloggers…).

It’s tough, though, because ratings criteria are often murky, or sometimes they are too narrow or unfocused to represent the thing being measured. A school seems like one of those things that may elude measurement, despite the confident claims of ed-list folks. For instance, Schooldigger, “The Easy Way to Evaluate K-12 School Performance,” says it has, “Over 20 years of historical data for over 120,000 United States public and private schools, including racial makeup, test scores, rankings, student/teacher ratios, and more.” Racial makeup? Suspicious yet? U.S. News claims in the lead paragraph to its 2015 list that its rankings “measure academic excellence.” Period.

For schools, this is a hard game to be in. When your school does well , you trumpet it on your home page. When it doesn’t, you get a talking head on the news to say lists are dumb.

But so many metrics are fundamentally uninformative regardless. If you knew that 9 out of the last 10 people who walked through a certain door were immediately killed, you would of course not want to walk through that door, right? But what if you subsequently learned about that door of forbiddenness that 100% of people who walked through it brandishing a gun were killed but 0% of people without guns were killed, and 9 of the last 10 people had guns? Suddenly, the gunless have a 100% survival rate. If you drop your gat, you may be quite appropriately prepared to succeed in walking through that door.

This example is absurd, but how much more so than school ranking lists? When involving kids, publications should be honor bound to qualify numbers and ratings very, very clearly. They should look at the types of children who rock it in certain schools — and there are kids in every district like that. What if school ratings sites were full of hours of interviews with parents, kids, teachers, and administrators? Want to choose?: Look at the whole picture. But that would take more effort than typically goes into these let’s-get-some-advertising showpieces.

SAT scores are a great example. The SAT measures wealth quite well, so schools rated in some way on SAT scores are being rated in some way on wealth. That seems like a borderline libelous way to judge schools — and the communities in which they reside (which can’t just magically change their wealth demographic, making these lists, to me, even nastier). Make no mistake, districts are shaped and lives are changed because of these lists, so at least give us honesty. Just say it: Kids who attend this school have richer parents. People can stop having coded conversations in which “test score” stands for “$” and say things like, “I want my kids in a richer school.” Then people who feel the same way can say, “Me too!” and others can make alternative decisions.

We’re #1!! We tend to focus on the top of a list, so we think like this: A high ranking means people will want to go there. What we don’t think is this: That means people will not go somewhere else. Again, the main problem is rankings tell you little, if anything, about what your child’s — raised, don’t forget, by you in a very particular life situation — individual experience will be like.

School ratings end up making places and people look like something they are not: Numbers. Shame on us for allowing those numbers to tell us impossibly narrow stories about real schools in real places where real kids are trying to learn.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.

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3 Responses to “School ratings: Your experience will be a 7.2”

  1. As a parent about to embark on her first college search for her high school student, I agree with much of what you say, but wonder what the alternative is…we need to assess the schools somehow… A couple stats or numbers, for example, which I learned about on our first college tour was the rate of students returning after their freshman year and percentage of students completing their undergraduate degree in four years, five years, or six….these numbers are important to parents (and not apparently shared by all institutions) and can give us some way of measuring what a student’s experience may be like at that school. I agree that SATs and other ratings may be suspect and need to be taken with a grain of salt, but some things need to be measured to help narrow down choices…

  2. To your point – interesting article in today’s WSJ about the falsity of numbers regarding the claim by unions and most democrats about the wealth factor and how CEO’s make 300+ x’s what the average worker makes. When you look at the sampling they took it is ludicrous. If you actually measured the claim using all CEO’s in all public companies, the actual factor is 5 – 1. But then Obama would have one less thing to bitch about while he was ruining this country.
    Oh, who cares about your college ranking?!
    Go to Rutgers Camden! They turn out (mostly) quality products!

  3. As you know, I am already searching for school options for my two year old, given the dismal state of public schools in Philadelphia. I will likely have to move to send him to a school where he is guaranteed basic safety. As much as I’d like to go and visit each and every school in the areas we might move to, that is not a possibility. (Though I’ll probably visit quite a few.) I know stats like racial makeup seem to invite the worse kind of “selection,” but for me it is the opposite. I am grateful I can find this information somewhere because I want my son to go to a school that is diverse and to be around people who don’t look just like him. I generally agree with your sentiments here, but this is a part of stats and measuring that can be used in positive way.

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