(TNS) — Fall is school choice season for families looking to get into limited-admission magnet or choice public schools and private schools for next year.
Tens of millions of families nationwide have looked to school-rating websites like GreatSchools and Niche for help in deciding where to enroll their children, as well as where to buy a home.
But experts have for years warned that these ratings say less about how well the schools are serving students and more about who enrolls there. The ratings provide a limited picture of school quality and favor schools in neighborhoods that are wealthy and disproportionately White, while giving mostly poorer ratings to schools in neighborhoods that are low-income and are primarily Latino and Black, experts say.
That’s largely because the ratings rely on data that, while easily accessible, correlate heavily with socioeconomic and race factors, such as standardized test scores.
Niche, one website that profits from its school ratings by selling schools digital marketing services, also uses inaccurate test-score data and survey data with low response rates to judge schools.
Despite efforts by these rating websites to incorporate equity into their ratings, experts say they still enforce stereotypes that schools in lower-income neighborhoods or that serve primarily students of color are bad schools, or that you have to be able to afford to live in a wealthy area to go to a good school.
“Those kinds of rankings, they often mislead the public in making determinations about schools that they themselves have never visited,” said Shaun Harper, a USC education professor and founder of the university’s Race and Equity Center. “They also mislead the public into presuming that nothing good happens in schools that are predominantly Black and Latino.”
Rather than relying on online ratings, it’s better for families to do their own research and visit campuses when choosing a new school, experts say.
HIGH INCOME, HIGH RATINGS
Of the 27 top-ranked public schools listed by Niche in the San Diego area, all but two had mostly higher-income students. Most had more than 80 percent higher-income students. And most of the schools are located in three high-priced districts: San Dieguito, Poway and Del Mar.
San Diego Unified schools with wealthier students and fewer Latino and Black students were more likely to get good grades from Niche and GreatSchools, while schools with more poor students and Latino and Black students were more likely to get bad grades, according to an analysis of ratings and enrollment data by The San Diego Union-Tribune.
Out of 79 San Diego Unified schools rated by Niche where students mostly come from higher-income families, all but eight got a grade of A- or better. Meanwhile schools that serve mostly low-income students were largely distributed among B+ to C+ grades.
GreatSchools gave 22 majority Latino and Black schools a rating of 7 or higher, which GreatSchools considers to be above average, compared to 57 schools that were not majority Latino and Black that received one.
Meanwhile Niche gave 16 majority Latino and Black schools, or about one-fifth of schools with those demographics, a grade of A- or higher, compared to 71 schools that were not majority Latino or Black — more than four-fifths of schools with those demographics.
GreatSchools was more likely than Niche to give a range of ratings to San Diego Unified schools with wealthier students and a minority of Latino and Black students.
In Niche’s case, some of the information it uses to calculate school grades are not representative data, but data based on who visits its website. Niche factors responses to user surveys into its ratings for schools’ academics, environment, teachers, clubs and more. It also factors in what colleges users say they are interested in attending and users’ reported SAT and ACT scores.
But some high schools have a few dozen or fewer survey responses when they have more than 1,000 students enrolled. Niche says it adjusts its calculations to account for lower response rates and for schools that get no survey responses.
The test scores used by Niche are also outdated and inaccurate.
Niche’s test score data for its 2024 ratings come from the 2020-2021 school year because those are the latest data available from the U.S. Department of Education, from which Niche pulls testing data. But that year, hundreds of thousands of California students did not take standardized tests due to pandemic disruptions, so test scores from that year are not representative of students.
And the scores on Niche.com differ drastically from that year’s test scores reported by the state. For example, Niche says only 29 percent of San Diego Unified students were proficient in reading and 19 percent in math in 2021, whereas state data shows that 82 percent of students who took tests met standards in English and 67 percent did so in math that year. Niche did not explain the discrepancy between the national data it uses and the state data.
All those scores are far different from the 53 percent of San Diego Unified students who met English standards and 41 percent who met math standards in 2022 — the first year after the onset of COVID-19 for which testing participation rates were high enough to be considered representative.
‘ONE POSSIBLE STARTING POINT’
GreatSchools, a nonprofit founded in 1998, and Niche, a startup founded in 2002, both say their aim is to provide families with more accessible information about schools.
“Niche has always believed that students and their parents should have an easy, free and transparent way to find out what a school is really like to help them in that important decision-making process,” said Cortland Reed, data scientist for Niche, in an email. “Rankings are one possible starting point for families using the Niche platform to embark on the school search process.”
Niche’s ratings also drive traffic to its website and allow the company to sell digital marketing services to schools, such as offering sponsored ads, which appear in school search results and on profiles of competitor schools, and premium profiles, which allow profile customization and the removal of competitor ads. (GreatSchools gets most of its revenue from donor contributions and grants, as well as licensing fees and web advertising revenue.)
But rating websites are limited in what they can portray about schools, because the data that are readily available nationally are limited largely to measures that correlate heavily with the wealth of students’ families, such as standardized test scores and graduation rates.
Such metrics reflect the advantages that students from higher-income families have — whether it be parents who have the time and resources to help them with school and advocate for them, or insulation from traumas like hunger and violence that often accompany poverty and that disproportionately affect Latino and Black communities.
“All Niche is doing there is really reflecting demographic data in disguise,” said Jack Schneider, education professor at the University of Massachusetts and director of the university’s Beyond Test Scores Project. “They are ostensibly telling us about the quality of schools when they are really telling us about the privilege of neighborhoods.”
A TOOL FOR SELLING HOMES
Basing school ratings off of factors that are heavily tied to demographics is “dangerous,” Schneider said, and is likely contributing to residential segregation along race and socioeconomic lines, considering that ratings are often used by parents when considering where to live.
Niche includes a link on every school profile to “View nearby homes;” the link for San Diego’s top-rated public high school, Canyon Crest Academy in San Dieguito, brings up listings that start at $600,000 for a one-bedroom condo in Carmel Valley.
GreatSchools licenses its data to real estate, media and technology companies. Its ratings appear on home listings for popular real estate websites including Zillow, Redfin and Realtor.com.
“Here is a rating system that is guiding more privileged families to more privileged neighborhoods, and to me that is exacerbating segregation. That is a civically dangerous activity that has very real consequences for our communities,” Schneider said.
Jon Deane, GreatSchools’ CEO, said his organization is not trying to influence where families choose to live.
“We do not try to help make them choices on where to live,” Deane said. “We have information to help a parent understand their options around schools.”
Experts say GreatSchools and Niche’s ratings naturally cater to more privileged families because they have the time and resources to research and choose a school, transport their child to a school outside their neighborhood, and to buy a home.
Parents who have the time and resources to be active in their children’s education are a crucial asset to a school, whether they have read books to their children since they were infants or organized fundraisers to pay for student programs or classroom supplies. Having more engaged parents can help turn around a school that has historically been under-performing in academics, said San Diego Unified school board Trustee Richard Barrera.
So Barrera said there can be significant consequences when rating websites steer these engaged and resourced families away from schools in neighborhoods that are already under-resourced.
“If parents are choosing not to send their kids to their school and part of that is based on rankings that really don’t tell any of the story of the school, it just creates a huge obstacle to the ability of people in that school community to make progress,” he said.
Officials with Niche and GreatSchools said they have taken steps to make their ratings more equitable.
For example, Niche factors in student racial, socioeconomic and gender diversity into its K-12 school ratings, but those metrics make up no more than 13 percent of a school’s overall rating. Academics as measured by proficiency rates and other factors still make up most of the rating.
Niche says it also publishes lists of “standout schools” that have at least a B grade and that have a majority of students who are from low-income families.
“We’re committed to improving our rankings each year to make them more equitable,” Reed said.
MEASURING STUDENT GROWTH
GreatSchools, which acknowledges that test scores correlate heavily with race and income, incorporates student growth data into its ratings to be more equitable, in addition to regular test scores.
Growth data show how much improvement a student has made over time on standardized tests. Some experts consider growth to be a more equitable measure of student performance because it doesn’t penalize schools for having students who started the school year already behind grade level, whether due to poverty or other factors.
But California is one state that does not measure student growth. So instead of growth, GreatSchools compares a school’s test performance to where it expects the school to be, based on student demographics and how well students from the prior grade did in the prior year. Such calculations still rely on test scores, and GreatSchools can’t calculate this for California high schools because students are tested in only one grade level in high school.
GreatSchools also includes a school-equity rating that judges how disadvantaged student groups at a school performed in multiple areas compared to all students statewide, as well how their performance compares to peers at their school who are not disadvantaged. GreatSchools displays detailed school data about disadvantaged students’ participation in advanced coursework, attendance, discipline disparities and other factors, although much of that data is from 2018 because that’s the last year such data was collected nationally.
“We want every child, no matter where they are, to have a great opportunity to have a great education,” Deane said.
WHAT PARENTS CAN DO
There are many qualities of schools that prospective families want to know about a school, but that go unmeasured in school ratings because nationwide data are unavailable. Do most students feel like they belong at school? Are they engaged in classes? Is the instruction culturally relevant and inclusive?
Harper said families should look at these aspects of schools instead of relying on online ratings: the diversity of the teaching staff, the diversity of the student body, the inclusiveness of the curriculum, who is getting suspended and expelled and how often, who is enrolled in gifted and talented programs, and student and staff opinions of the school climate.
Families should visit schools in person and talk to the principal, teachers and other parents so they can see what the school environment is like, Barrera said.
Barrera suggests asking yourself: Do I as a parent feel welcome here? Is my child welcome? Do the teachers and staff seem to have a positive outlook and enjoy going to work? What extracurricular programs does the school have? Does the school outperform schools with similar demographics, or has its performance remained flat or declined recently?
Parents who are engaged and have the capacity to be engaged enough to be researching schools will help make a school better, no matter where they decide to enroll, Barrera said.
“Don’t underestimate your ability to have a positive impact on the school itself,” he said.
©2023 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.