What Makes a Great School?

Deconstructing the school-quality rankings that parents rely on — and finding a way to measure what matters

October 23, 2017
What Makes a Great School?

What are the signs that a school is succeeding?

Try asking someone. Chances are, they’ll say something about the impact a school makes on the young people who attend it. Do students feel safe and cared for? Are they being challenged? Do they have opportunities to play and create? Are they happy?

If you’re a parent, getting this kind of information entails a great deal of effort — walking the hallways, looking in on classrooms, talking with teachers and students, chatting with parents, and watching kids interact on the playground.

Since most of us don’t have the time or the wherewithal to run our own school-quality reconnaissance missions, we rely on rumor and anecdote, hunches and heuristics, and, increasingly, the Internet.

So what’s out there on the web? Are our pressing questions about schools being answered by crowdsourced knowledge and big data sets?

As it turns out, no.

There’s information, certainly. But mostly it doesn’t align with what we really want to know about how schools are doing. Instead, most of what we learn about schools online — on the websites of magazines, on school rating sites, and even on real estate listings — comes from student standardized test scores. Some may include demographic information or class size ratios. But the ratings are derived primarily from state-mandated high stakes tests.

One consequence of such limited and distorting data is an impoverished public conversation about school quality. We talk about schools as if they are uniformly good or bad, as if we have complete knowledge of them, and as if there is agreement about the practices and outcomes of most value. 

The first problem with this state of affairs is that test scores don’t tell us a tremendous amount about what students are learning in school. As research has demonstrated, school factors explain only about 20 percent of achievement scores — about one-third of what student and family background characteristics explain. Consequently, test scores often indicate much more about demography than about schools.

Even if scores did reflect what students were learning in school, they’d still fail to address the full range of what schools actually do. Multiple-choice tests communicate nothing about school climate, student engagement, the development of citizenship skills, student social and emotional health, or critical thinking. School quality is multidimensional. And just because a school is strong in one area does not mean that it is equally strong in another. In fact, my research team has found that high standardized test score growth can be correlated with low levels of student engagement. Standardized tests, in short, tell us very little about what we actually value in schools.

One consequence of such limited and distorting data is an impoverished public conversation about school quality. We talk about schools as if they are uniformly good or bad, as if we have complete knowledge of them, and as if there is agreement about the practices and outcomes of most value.

Another consequence is that we can make unenlightened decisions about where to live and send our children to school. Schools with more affluent student bodies tend to produce high test scores. Perceived as “good,” they become the objects of desire for well-resourced and quality-conscious parents. Conversely, schools with more diverse student bodies are dismissed as bad.

GreatSchools.org gives my daughter’s school — a highly diverse K–8 school — a 6 on its 10-point scale. The state of Massachusetts labels it a “Level 2” school in its five-tier test score-based accountability system. SchoolDigger.com rates it 456th out of 927 Massachusetts elementary schools.

How does that align with reality? My daughter is excited to go to school each day and is strongly attached to her current and former teachers. A second-grader, she reads a book a week, loves math, and increasingly self-identifies as an artist and a scientist. She trusts her classmates and hugs her principal when she sees him. She is often breathlessly excited about gym. None of this is currently measured by those purporting to gauge school quality.

Better measures aren’t a panacea. But so much might be accomplished if we had a shared understanding of what we want our schools to do, clear language for articulating our aims, and more honest metrics for tracking our progress.

Of course, I’m a professor of education and my wife is a teacher. Our daughter is predisposed to like school. So what might be said objectively about the school as a whole? Over the past two years, suspensions have declined to one-fifth of the previous figure, thanks in part to a restorative justice program and an emphasis on positive school culture. The school has adopted a mindfulness program that helps students cope with stress and develop the skill of self-reflection. A new maker space is being used to bring hands-on science, technology, engineering, and math into classrooms. The school’s drama club, offered free after school twice a week, now has almost 100 students involved.

The inventory of achievements that don’t count is almost too long to list.

So if the information we want about schools is too hard to get, and the information we have is often misleading, what’s a parent to do?

Four years ago, my research team set out to build a more holistic measure of school quality. Beginning first in the city of Somerville, Massachusetts, and then expanding to become a statewide initiative — the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment — we asked stakeholders what they actually care about in K–12 education. The result is a clear, organized, and comprehensive framework for school quality that establishes common ground for richer discussions and recognizes the multi-dimensionality of schools.

Only after establishing shared values did we seek out measurement tools. Our aim, after all, was to begin measuring what we value, rather than to place new values on what is already measured.

For some components of the framework, we turned to districts, which often gather much more information than ends up being reported. For many other components, we employed carefully designed surveys of students and teachers — the people who know schools best. And though we currently include test score growth, we are moving away from multiple-choice tests and toward curriculum-embedded performance assessments designed and rated by educators rather than by machines.

Better measures aren’t a panacea. Segregation by race and income continues to menace our public schools, as does inequitable allocation of resources. More accurate and comprehensive data systems won’t wash those afflictions away. But so much might be accomplished if we had a shared understanding of what we want our schools to do, clear and common language for articulating our aims, and more honest metrics for tracking our progress.

Illustration: Wilhelmina Peragine

More on Testing

We talk with Daniel Koretz, author of The Testing Charade, about the purpose, the misuse, and the abuse of standardized testing.

About the Author

Jack Schneider
Jack Schneider is an assistant professor of education at the College of the Holy Cross and the director of research for the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment. His latest book is Beyond Test Scores: A Better Way to Measure School Quality (Harvard University Press). Follow him on Twitter @Edu_Historian.
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