October 24, 2021

Jack Schneider: ‘Best schools’ lists are meaningless — and could make segregation worse

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Jack Schneider is an education historian and scholar who co-hosts the popular Have You Heard education podcast. In commentary for WBUR, he explains just how bad an idea the US News ranking of elementary schools is.

As many Americans are aware, U.S. News, once an actual newsmagazine, pioneered college and university rankings. In fact, that was soon the only reason people ever bought U.S. News. Today, you can’t learn anything about what’s going on at home or abroad, but you can find rankings of colleges, hospitals and even countries.

The problems with ranking colleges and universities are well-documented and not worth rehashing. Anyone with internet access can find thoughtful and even-handed critiques. But rating elementary and middle schools is both harder and higher-stakes than rating colleges and universities. And while U.S. News may be attracting millions of new eyeballs to its website, it may also do tremendous harm to our schools and communities.

Unlike colleges and universities, elementary and middle schools are tied to neighborhoods. When students pick one college over another, it doesn’t affect the character of the neighborhood. Moreover, colleges and universities often intentionally try to cultivate diverse student bodies. Choosing an elementary or middle school, by contrast, often means relocating. And because K-12 schools draw their students from the surrounding neighborhood, if a neighborhood’s demography changes, the school’s generally does as well.

School ratings, then, have the power to drive segregation. And there’s evidence that this is already happening via websites like GreatSchools.org and Niche.com. Privileged parents compete against each other in the real estate market to buy homes near “good” schools, while lower-rated schools suffer reputational harm and serve increasingly disadvantaged students.

In short, there are very real risks in the rating of K-12 schools. And in light of such risks, we should adopt a very high standard with regard to the methodological quality of such ratings. As the research community would frame it, there needs to be very strong evidence of measurement validity.

And here’s where U.S. News falls short even of its deeply flawed rivals. As the editors describe it on their website, scoring of schools is “almost entirely rooted in students’ performance on mathematics and reading/language arts state assessments.”

Read the entire article here.

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