Q: With a daughter entering kindergarten, and a son not far behind, we recently bought a house near a school loved by parents and hyped by the real estate agent. When we started house hunting, the school had a rating of 9 on GreatSchools.org. The website now rates it a 7. Parents still like the school, and our daughter seems happy, but should we worry?
A: Do some digging and ask questions before you put this on your worry list. In most states, GreatSchools compiles a rating using publically available data that reflects how well students do on standardized tests compared to other students in the state. The rating is on a 1-to-10 scale, where 10 is the highest, 1 the lowest.
"While test results give you a good sense of how well students are performing at a given school, they only offer a limited snapshot of school quality," says Mike Gallaher, a senior analyst at GreatSchools.org.
That's why a growing number of states are making more data available to parents, such as attendance, information on how much students learn in a given year, how prepared they are for college work or an assessment of the school's learning climate.
GreatSchools is currently focused on three aspects of academic quality, says Gallaher: "One is student achievement -- how well students at a school do in academics, measured as the percent of students meeting state standards based on state standardized tests."
No. 2 is student growth -- how much students are actually learning in a year, rather than how much they already know.
"A school with high growth could be a school with students that started behind grade level and have now caught up," notes Gallaher.
No. 3 is college readiness. "With high schools," says Gallaher, "we look at school graduation rates and performance and participation on college entrance exams (such as the SAT and ACT) as indicators of how well students are prepared for life after high school in college or careers."
Schools in states that have rolled out the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and are testing children on those standards may see a drop in their GreatSchools rating if the tests and instruction aren't yet closely aligned.
"This is worth asking," says Gallaher. Other things to ask: What measures does the school use to track academic progress if not state tests? Has there been a change in leadership? Is there high faculty turnover? Is there any change in the student population, with new students needing extra support to catch up? What is the school's rating history?
Look at other factors, too, such as parent and community comments, what programs the school offers that are important to you, such as arts, music, after-school enrichment and so on.
"Take this opportunity to walk through all the data with the principal," suggests Gallaher. "At GreatSchools, we're willing to answer questions about how a school's rating is derived."
There may be very good reasons for the drop in score, or the school's leadership may not be aware of it and will welcome your advocacy on behalf of academic excellence.
For more, go to greatschools.org/about/ratings.page.
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)