Businesses See Hot Commodity In School Data
Officials of the Evanston/Skokie, Ill., school district were not amused when their schools mistakenly received the lowest rating last fall on a free World Wide Web site designed to help home buyers.
As it turned out, a computer-programming error had occurred in the school-rating calculations, which were posted on the official site of the National Association of Realtors. The error was quickly corrected, and the well-regarded district, which is home to Northwestern University, received the site's top ranking.
The incident dramatizes the perils, and potential, that await as more groups customize school data for needs ranging from shopping for schools, to reforming them, to headhunting for principals and teachers.
"The ability to take and manipulate data is astronomically greater than it was a few years ago," said John M. McLaughlin, the president of the Education Industry Group, a Sioux Falls, S.D., company that monitors investment trends in education-related ventures. "Now, with a $2,000 personal computer and the right software, you're in business."
But, as residents of the 7,000-student Evanston/Skokie district can attest, school data should be eyed with a "buyer beware" mentality. "If data can be on a reputable site and not be true, it's not a good situation for people seeking worthwhile information," the school system's spokesman, Marshall Rosenthal, said.
One reason that data packages about schools and districts are such a hot commodity is that more school performance information is available than ever before. That's because states are mass-producing data as part of a national movement to hold schools more accountable for how well they do their jobs.
Thanks to the spread of technology, that information is also relatively easy to obtain. For example, 26 states will post school report cards on the Internet's World Wide Web by the end of this year. And there is nothing to stop businesses or nonprofit groups from repackaging the data for their clients or the public.
"I see this as a growing business," said Criss Cloudt, the associate state education commissioner for policy planning and research in Texas. Concerns about misuse of state data are outweighed by the public's right to know, she said. "In such an important business as education," Ms. Cloudt said, "the word must get out."
The largest and potentially the most lucrative audience for school data is parents, a fact that has not escaped San Francisco entrepreneur Steve Rees.
In 1997, Mr. Rees published a guide to help parents in the San Francisco Bay area pick between schools in their districts, which California allows. Hoping to tap into a broader market, he started School Wise Press, an online service that last summer began offering free profiles of California's 8,000 public schools. For $6, parents can get more-detailed reports of up to 12 pages with information and comparisons on enrollment, class sizes, student-to-computer ratios, and test scores.
At least two other California groups provide school data for free. Ed-Data is a coalition of education groups, including the state department of education, which offers school data on the Web.
The nonprofit GreatSchools.net currently provides information on schools in the Bay area only, but it hopes to expand statewide.
While School Wise Press relies on numbers collected by the state, Mr. Rees has promised to get the data online before the state does. His Web site gets from 20,000 to 30,000 visitors a month.
And, compared with free information from state-sponsored sites, he said: "We can exercise independent judgment without self-interest. We can take the customer's point of view and compare."
Nationwide, scores of Internet sites offer school data. And as their numbers grow, such sites, as well as the groups that provide the site operators with their information, are looking for ways to stand out.
For example, the Chicago-based National Association of Realtors is rating schools across the nation through its "Find a Neighborhood" Internet service, which is in the final stages of being pilot-tested.
The NAR site, which is where the Evanston schools' error appeared, is managed by RealSelect Inc. of Thousand Oaks, Calif. RealSelect, in turn, gets its Internet data on a variety of neighborhood issues from Taconic Data Corp. of Valhalla, N.Y.. Taconic gets its school statistics from the San Diego-based company 2001Beyond.
Taconic calculates the school ratings and took responsibility for the error, which the company's vice president, James Garfinkel, said was fixed within 48 hours. He explained that the ratings are based on pupil-teacher ratios, SAT and ACT scores, spending, rates of college-bound students, and the number of National Merit finalists.
"What we don't want to do is misrepresent a school positively or negatively," added David Rosenblatt, RealSelect's vice president of marketing. "We are committed to the highest standards of quality."
Meanwhile, one of the nation's leading sources of school data, National School Reporting Services Inc. of Stamford, Conn., hopes to begin providing data on private and religious schools. It already provides free reports on public schools from its Web site.
The 10-year-old company was bought last fall by Central Newspapers Inc., a Phoenix, Ariz.-based chain, and is now part of the company's real-estate-services branch, Homefair.com.
"Right now, the biggest demand is from people who are moving," David Crampton, the chief executive officer of National School Reporting Services, said of school data. "But I think the biggest demand is going to be from people looking to change schools."
Elsewhere, Westerville, Ohio-based SchoolMatch recently added an online survey on high schools for parents and students to complete. The survey will complement the company's school reports, which range in price from $10 to $34 when ordered from their Web site.
"We're looking for an independent analysis of schools," Jeff Glaze, the manager for consulting services for SchoolMatch, said of the surveys. "When we get the numbers, we'll decide what to do with [the information.]"
The wealth of state data is also prompting some groups to channel the information into school improvement projects.
An Austin-based nonprofit agency called Just for the Kids uses state information dating back to 1990 to identify schools that perform well with student populations that traditionally lag on achievement measures.
"We are not an accountability agent, but we want to show schools and parents what is possible to achieve," said Brad Duggan, the agency's executive director. Founded in 1995, the group went online last week with profiles of the state's 2,000 elementary schools.
Greg Marshall, the principal at P.H. Greene Elementary School in Webster, 25 miles south of Houston, said that Just for the Kids' data allowed him to find schools of like demographics that outperformed his school.
"The story this data told was not as glowing as the state report" on school performance, Mr. Marshall said. "It gave us information about where we were in relation to 'best practices' schools." While Mr. Marshall volunteered for the program and received the report for free, such studies usually cost about $65. Already, P.H. Greene is using a reading program it found through Just for the Kids data.
Former Texas Deputy Commissioner of Education David Stamman said he has been surprised by how schools use his new business, Academic Management Inc. He produces a $150 software package that lets users access and graph several years of data on schools and districts statewide.
Since starting his business last fall, Mr. Stamman has found that one of the most common uses of his data is to locate job candidates by identifying like schools that perform well academically.
"I never expected it to be used this way," Mr. Stamman said. "But if you want someone from outside your district, this helps you find someone from a similar site who might work."
With the avalanche of school data, however, come warnings.
Officials at the College Board in New York City discourage judging the quality of schools by scores on the SAT, the college-entrance exam it sponsors.
"It's certainly not the most important indicator, but it is used and there's no way to prevent it," said Janice Gam, the College Board's associate director of public affairs. One problem is that the percentage of students taking such tests varies by school, which in turn affects average scores. "It says nothing about the quality of the educational tools provided to students," Ms. Gam said.
Parents may also have a hard time deciding what to believe.
For example, a free, online school report on the Web site of The Los Angeles Times states that, in 1996-97, students in Los Angeles County scored an average of 432 on the verbal section of the SAT and 452 on the mathematics section. On School Wise Press, the numbers were 430 and 453, respectively. An official with the Los Angeles County schools explained that the School Wise Press numbers were correct. He said the newspaper's numbers actually were the SAT scores for Los Angeles city schools.
But even if a group or company's numbers are the most accurate and up-to-date possible, serious users of school information want more than statistics. What they need are data on curriculum and school climate, some education experts say.
"All of these are tougher to collect, but some of those data on school climate would be much more valuable to making school improvement," said Russell L. French, a professor of education at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
Mr. French argued that state agencies should join forces with outside groups to collect and report data and to overcome data-collection obstacles such as personnel and funding shortages.
"Most state agencies are not motivated to do this kind of thing," he said. "Others want to, but can't."
Vol. 18, Issue 23, Pages 1,14-15