Nonprofit designs school index for low-income, minority parents

February 9, 2016

The California State Board of Education intends to do away with a school rating system that ranks schools based primarily on standardized test scores. However, GreatSchools, an Oakland-based nonprofit that provides millions of parents nationwide with information about their children’s schools, believes the index has vital information that California parents want and has launched a new project to make that data easier to find.

In partnership with Innovate Public Schools, a San Jose-based advocacy group that organizes low-income, minority parents, GreatSchools has expanded its standard 1-to-10 ranking of schools (10 being highest) to include additional features for California schools:

The latter feature reflects the twin goals of the project: consumer choice and activism, said Matt Hammer, founder and CEO of Innovate Public Schools. Families may not be able to move to a nearby district, but they can press their school board to explain why their school isn’t doing as well as one nearby with similar children, he said.

“We want to make data useful for advocacy by families who want good options for children who historically have not achieved at high levels and been served well by schools,” said Bill Jackson, GreatSchools president and CEO.

GreatSchools uses information the California Department of Education posts online, including the new California Assessment of Student Progress and Performance, or CASPP, website with the Smarter Balanced results by district and school, including student subgroups. GreatSchools brings information together in one place, makes it easier to compare schools and translates the test data and methodology into understandable language. (Ed-Data, a partnership of the California Department of Education, the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team/California School Information Services, and EdSource, also has a useful school and district comparison tool but has not yet included Smarter Balanced results.)

Credit: Great Schools/Innovate Public Schools.

This sample of a new GreatSchools report for the June Jordan School for Equity in San Francisco shows below-average test scores but above average percentage of students who qualify for the University of California or the California State University.

Students’ scores on Smarter Balanced tests fall into four performance levels: “Standards not met,” “standards nearly met,” “standards met” and “standards exceeded.” GreatSchools defines Standards met and Standards exceeded as the equivalent of “proficient” and then ranks schools 1 to 10 based on the percentage of students in a school who score proficient. Bay Area schools whose scores and other metrics fall in the bottom 30 percent are enumerated in red; schools in the middle 40 percent are in orange and in the top 30 percent are in green. The terms and colors make it easier to see where schools stand at a quick glance, Hammer said.

GreatSchools currently ranks schools in 39 states based on test scores alone. Its indexes in 11 states and Washington, D.C., also factor in yearly growth in test scores and a college readiness indicator. Next year, using the second year of the Smarter Balanced scores, GreatSchools will also build these factors into its California schools index, and show other measurements of performance in a school report. “We plan to add clear, quantifiable data and also qualitative data that may be less comparable across schools,” Hammer said.

GreatSchools also plans to expand features in the pilot districts to schools statewide. Innovate Public Schools is introducing the index to parents through its Parent Action Network. 

The new state school accountability system that the state board is creating will also show school performance in multiple metrics, but not a single-number index, which board members view as simplistic. The board suspended the state’s former Academic Performance Index two years ago. Last week, the California Office to Reform Education released its new school quality index for the 1,153 schools in the CORE districts, which include Los Angeles Unified, San Francisco Unified and Long Beach Unified. The districts developed it as a condition of a waiver from the No Child Left Behind Law.

GreatSchools’ site includes guides to the Common Core, parenting advice and articles on children’s brain development and social emotional learning. Parents can also review their children’s schools.

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