Step 3 - RESEARCH: Page 3

Monday
Jul122010

Data Crunching

This page covers:

  • Test scores – how they’re obtained, what they might tell you
  • Class sizes – how they’re determined, why they vary, why they don’t always matter
  • Teacher experience – what to look for
  • School ratings – what “report cards” exist, how to understand them, where to find them

Although your priorities and opinions may take precedence in the school search, it's worth taking a look at the numbers.  Assuming you’ve been Gathering Basic Info from sites we’ve suggested, below are some (somewhat) objective criteria to weigh:

Test Scores

So what about test scores?  How much should they factor in to your decision?  And what is tested?  Here is the scoop:

  • Test scores come from standardized tests, which are those bubble-in tests that most of us took back way back when.  Each state has its own tests that correlate with its own state standards (which are the specific skills and knowledge a student is expected to acquire each year).  These are revised periodically and differ (usually slightly) from state to state.  Oregon’s standards are pretty average compared to other states. 
  • All public school students are tested every year from third grade on.  The scores will show how many students meet, exceed, or fall below “benchmarks,” which is the score number that aims to prove a student is performing adequately.  Public school districts (and the state) disclose quite a bit of detailed information about scores on their websites.  
  • Independent schools can choose whether they want to give standardized tests.  Most do in order to verify that their students are competitive with public school students.  Their scores may be available on their website or you may need to ask for them when you visit. 
  • When looking at a school’s scores, start with context.  Schools that are socioeconomically advantaged, where nearly all students went to preschool and have been academically groomed from birth, typically have high scores – around 90 percent or more above grade level in reading and math.  Schools with students with more varied backgrounds and levels of advantage can run the full gamut of results.  A socioeconomically diverse school with 80 percent or more of students testing at benchmark or above is impressive.

So what do test scores tell us?  That’s a question of much debate.  Some will say that strong scores indicate a school is “teaching to the test” and requires students to do class work closely paralleling the test format to insure higher scores.  Some believe that strong test scores do indicate a vibrant learning environment, while others argue they indicate a preoccupation with skills rather than the true vigor of rich learning. 

In our opinion, they are worth looking at with a skeptical eye.  They may not be a good indicator of rich, engaging instruction, but they do give you a hint about the skill levels of the students, which is an important part of a student’s success.  The scores can also give you a sense of the range of skills students have and help you guess where your child might fit in.  It’s more likely that your child’s needs will get met if he or she is not an outlier.  If, for instance, your child is supernaturally skilled, you want to find a school with a substantial number of highly skilled students so that teachers are compelled to (hopefully) offer that group increased challenge.  The same goes for the child that is struggling – if he or she is the only low performing student in a high performing class, not having a peer group with similar needs, will almost certainly result in the frustration of feeling behind. 

Note: Test scores are just part of the puzzle, but the piece that reflects student achievement. If you are looking at schools with a significant percentage of lower socioeconomic families, the hard cold facts may not surprise you.  But recent findings show that student character trumps poverty, which might offer insight.

Class Size

When trying to size up class size, do not be fooled by the teacher-to-student ratio listed as part of Oregon public school’s data.  That ratio is calculated by counting up all the full time credentialed staff and comparing that to the number of students.  This includes counselors, special education teachers, and librarians/media specialists.  It does not give you an accurate picture of how many students will be in your child’s class.  For that information you have to consult the school.  (Private schools’ teacher-student ratio generally reflects classroom teacher to student ratio, and is a more reliable data point.)

A few things to keep in mind about class size:

  • It varies quite a bit from school to school, with some schools having better control over it than others.  Schools that use the lottery to fully fill their classrooms can set a limit to their class size.  (e.g. Winterhaven historically takes 28 in their primary rooms, Emerson 24.)
  • Neighborhood schools have much less control over class size, as they are obligated to take students within their boundaries, which can mean last minute or midyear walk-ins.  Some years years neighborhood school A might have 31 kids in a kindergarten class, while neighborhood school B has only 17.
  • Portland Public has set some guidelines on class size, though there’s no obligation to open a new classroom if those targets are exceeded.  Whether last minute reshuffling occurs to add a class (thereby lowering class size) depends on funding for that year and the principal’s skills in dealing with the district office. Sometimes a school can scrounge up funds for an educational assistant which might help the teacher manage a larger class size.
  • Some specialized programs (e.g. Montessori, or other mixed-age or project learning approaches) might have larger classes by design.  These almost always have at least 2 teachers in the classroom, and so the higher number of students shouldn’t necessarily be a red flag.

Teacher Experience

One bit of data you may find on each PPS school fact page (or can ask the school) is the average number of years of teacher experience.  This also can be a slippery piece of information to interpret.  For a school with a small staff, a few veteran teachers can skew the data deceptively.  And of course it begs the question of whether you are looking for a fresh energetic staff, or an experienced, more mellowed one. 

The ideal may be a mix of these.  Teachers in their first year or two of teaching tend to be highly motivated and very invested in their students, but often suffer the anguish of a steep learning curve that can result in some missteps along the way.  Teachers who have been teaching in the double digits can be in the danger zone for burnout, yet have ready toolboxes full of teaching ideas and strategies.  A mix of experience levels can create a very dynamic teaching environment:  new teachers bring adventurous ideas and new trends to share; and experienced teachers bring wisdom, perspective, and well-vetted approaches.

More: Should Teachers be Held Accountable for Student Achievement?

School Ratings

Sometimes all these numbers relating to test scores and such are crunched down for you into a nice compact school rating score.  However, because similar data is not available for private schools, the ratings are only useful if you’re looking at public schools – and it makes comparing the two kind of an apples and oranges thing.  But if you are reviewing any public schools, these resources – all related to test scores and progress – might be worth checking out:

  • Every fall, the Oregon Dept. of Education ranks schools into one of five levels, with 1 being the lowest and 5 being the highest.  These calculations are done by seeing how a school’s test scores compare with other schools in the state, by gauging the degree of improvement that a school has shown over the previous years, and by looking at graduation and dropout rates (for high school).  You can find these scores at the Oregon Department of Education’s website (choose district report card), or in the more user friendly reporting by The Oregonian.
  • Outside sources rate schools too, usually usually based almost entirely upon testing data.  For example, Great Schools.org gives a score of 1-10 for each school based on test results, and Schooldigger.com parses out the data, allowing you customize a chart to compare exactly what you want to see.

Note: All this school ratings business can be frustrating, especially when we hear about schools in other countries that rank much higher than ours.  Finland schools are a great example, ones we should look to for inspiration.

Look over the hard data of the schools you’re considering to make sure no red flags jump out at you.  Keep any yellow flags in the back of your mind as you continue to assess your priorities.  All the “green lights” might guide you to the right school for your kid.  Or you may end up at a school with less desirable “data,” in which case, let it be an indicator of what to watch for once you’re there, and how you might want to supplement (more on that in our Settle In section). But now that you theoretically have all the pertinent information on your schools of interest, your next step is to work on a list of schools to visit.

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