Vail Daily column: Ranking schools
Editor’s note: This week’s column is co-authored with Tiffany Dougherty, principal at Eagle Valley Elementary School, an International Baccalaureate World School with dual language programming.
Recently, we’ve noticed the increased use of various school rating websites which rank schools according to their test scores. Sometimes, these rankings are used to try and determine which schools are doing well. In other cases, the rankings are used in an effort to trumpet the outcomes of some schools and shame those of others.
As educators, we feel it is important to model the kind of analytic thinking we wish to see our students develop. As such, we are compelled to put these rankings into the appropriate context.
One such website is http://www.schooldigger.com. This website exclusively ranks schools based on state test scores with no other measures included, but does add this qualifier, “We would be the first to argue that this is not the ultimate way to rank schools and that there are certainly many, many more criteria — objective and subjective — that add to, or subtract from, the overall quality of a school. But we believe that listing schools by test scores is useful, and as a tool should be used by parents in conjunction with all the other criteria available.”
There are other websites that rank schools based on a variety of criteria and which use different methods for generating their results. For example, http://www.coloradoschoolgrades.com uses the Colorado Department of Education’s School Performance Framework, which is based on academic proficiency, academic growth, percentage of English language learners and other disaggregated populations, such as students in poverty or with special needs, growth gaps with the majority, etc.
Simply using another school ranking website with a different approach generates dramatic changes in results. Here are some interesting numbers comparing School Digger and Colorado School Grades rankings.
In some schools, we do not see much change. Eagle Valley Middle School’s ranking goes up 34 places from 58th to 24th in the state. However, in other schools we see wide swings. For example, Homestake Peak School’s ranking goes up a whopping 460 places while Eagle County Charter Academy falls 418. Eagle Valley Elementary goes up 221 rankings while Brush Creek Elementary falls 286.
As you can see, depending on the ranking method the website uses, the results can be very different.
Rankings derived from systems built on test scores can also be quite biased based on the kinds of students the school serves. Dr. Glass performed an analysis of the top rated schools on Colorado School Grades and found that the highest rated schools averaged 13.1 percent students who were eligible for free/reduced lunch (a measure of school poverty). By contrast, the state of Colorado (and Eagle County Schools) has 42 percent of students eligible for free/reduced lunch.
Literally decades of research tells us that socio-economically advantaged children tend to score higher on standardized tests. We also know that out-of-school factors are (by far) the largest determinants of test score results.
Academic tests measure important concepts for our kids. But they also must be put into context in that they capture both the positive and negative impacts of student backgrounds and environments.
We must also acknowledge that these tests measure a very narrow set of the skills we ultimately want for our children. Creativity, collaboration, ethics, courage, kindness, appreciating differences — these are all important components of a child’s development which do not appear on websites ranking schools by test scores.
These ranking websites use data from the 2014 testing cycle and reflect outcomes from before our district embarked on its current strategic direction. While we understand that many using these school rankings seek to create a narrative for urgency and change, we are already at work to make our schools even better.
We do not engage in this important work because of some school ranking website. Rather, we do it out of love for our community and our children.
Our schools are teaching information literacy so that students can discern between reliable and biased information in shaping their opinions. Eagle County Schools is committed to educating all students to high standards — one reason for this commitment is so that students develop the real-world skill of recognizing that multiple source research is more reliable than that of only a single source.
As adults, let’s commit to modeling the kind of critical thinking we want to teach our children.
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.