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Are School Rankings Accurate Measure of School Performance?

Mirror, Mirror On The Wall: Is My School The Fairest of Them All?
• In Pandemic Era, Will Common Analytic Data Be Sufficient to Rank Schools?
by Robert Stewart
As schools start to reopen for the 2020-2021 school year under very unusual circumstances, there is always a curious inclination to question, “How good are the schools where we send our children?”
     Capitalizing on this question, various media outlets including magazines and web-based sites compile school rankings aiming to pick out the best schools in the state or in a certain area. Some of the better known magazines that publish school rankings are Boston Magazine and U. S. News and World Report. Some of the web-based sites to list school rankings are School Digger and Niche.
     Ranking schools from the best (the top 10) to the not so best may attract readers to the magazine or website but do these rankings accurately measure the value of a school district’s overall performance?
     And, in today’s pandemic era, will common analytic data be sufficient to measure a school’s performance? Some common criteria used in the effort to rank schools from best to not so best are: Standardized test results (like the MCAS test), per pupil expenditures, class sizes, student-teacher ratios, percentage of students who go on to higher education, availability of extracurricular activities Some of these criteria are certainly good indicators of how school districts are performing but are they the definitive data that can say with some degree of certainty that this school should be ranked number one and another school should be ranked near the bottom?
     Scientifically, it would be a difficult task to weigh and measure all the factors that go into a good education and an even more difficult task to determine who is best at it. As an example, in a recent Boston Magazine article, high schools in Westford and Harvard public schools ranked in the top five but in the U.S. News and World Report rankings Harvard’s Bromfield School ranked 17, Westford Academy (the public high school in Westford) was ranked 15 and Groton-Dunstable High School was ranked 26. Groton-Dunstable was not included in the Boston Magazine ranking because the District is located outside Interstate 495.
     School rankings from some of the web-based sites likewise show a wide disparity of how schools are ranked. The School Digger site ranked only high schools and they ranked Bromfield School in Harvard at Number Five, Groton-Dunstable at Number 10 and Westford at Number 15. The Niche site ranked the entire school districts and Westford was ranked Number One, Harvard was ranked Number 22 and Groton-Dunstable was ranked Number 34.
     Some of the criteria used in these rankings include math and reading proficiency of students and the availability of Advanced Placement courses and student’s scores on AP tests.
     School Committee Chair Marlena Gilbert said she does not put too much weight on school rankings because many of the outlets that publish or list them change criteria every year and there is no consistency year to year. Gilbert said, “...the reality
is if you are going to rank schools and the methodology changes when ranking them on an annual basis, the validity of the ranking is lost.”
     Gilbert added that Groton-Dunstable ranks itself based on growth within the District on standards set by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
     School Superintendent Dr. Laura Chesson added a different and perhaps better measure of a school’s performance. She believes that how well students do after graduation is a good indicator of how well a school district does its job. She states, “I think the best litmus test is how successful students are after high school. Each year we invite our alumnae to come back and share with us and our high school faculty how prepared they were for college and beyond and what we could have done to prepare them better. We have received very positive feedback from our students.”
     It is likely the ranks of school districts will become more complex in the future as the COVID-19 pandemic has introduced new and different measures to the learning experiences of students. The remote aspect of learning could have a big impact on math and reading proficiency and also on the availability of Advanced Placement courses and extracurricular activities.
     The pandemic will also impact measures such as class sizes and student/teacher ratios. With social distancing, classes will be limited as to the number of students within a classroom and with the addition of extra staffing to meet smaller class sizes, the student/teacher ratio will also be impacted.
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