GreatSchools’ Ratings Revamp Credits Schools for Boosting Academic Growth

By Christina A. Samuels — September 24, 2020 3 min read
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Schools that make strong progress in improving their students’ academic progress will receive a boost in their summary rating under a system rolled out this week by GreatSchools, a nonprofit schools rating and parent information website that receives millions of visits a year.

The summary rating is the first number displayed on a school’s GreatSchools page, with 10 being the highest score a school can receive and 1 being the lowest. The scores also have a corresponding color code, from a high-rated green down to the orange of the lowest-rated schools. Real estate websites such as Zillow and Redfin link to Greatschools when providing information on houses and the schools that serve their areas.

In addition to student progress, a schools summary rating is also derived from test scores, college readiness (when appropriate for a given school), and equity.

The equity rating measures how successful a school is in providing strong outcomes for historically disadvantaged groups. Under the new ratings system, the equity rating will also add college readiness data and student growth data. GreatSchools has increased the weight of the equity rating when it comes to calculating a school’s overall summary rating.

At the same time, GreatSchools has taken discipline and attendance out of the factors that are used in the summary rating. Users can still see the information, but the organization had already downplayed the weight of this factor so that it wouldn’t make the difference in a school’s summary score.

New System Tends to Increase Scores of High-Need Schools

California and Michigan already saw these changes roll out in August; the rest of the country saw updated changes Sept. 24, though GreatSchools does not have complete data from every single state.

Overall, the changes did not result in wild swings, like a school once rated as a 9 shifting down to a 2 or vice versa, said Orville Jackson, GreatSchools’ vice president for data strategy. “The majority of shifts were in the big bulky middle, plus or minus 2 points range,” he said.

The site rates over 130,000 schools. About 79,000 saw their summary ratings change. Of those, 20 percent saw those ratings increase by 1 point, another 2 percent saw a boost of 2 points. About 17 percent of schools dropped by 1 point and 1 percent dropped by 2 points. Fewer than 15 schools saw their summary ratings shift more than 3 points in either direction. (School ratings for North Dakota and Indiana will be updated in a future release due to the timing of their school data.)

The changes mean “there’s more of a focus on learning and growth and what’s actually happening in schools right now,” said Jon Deane, GreatSchools’ chief executive officer. And in conversations with school researchers, those were the factors that they said mattered the most in evaluating a school’s quality.

And these adjustments, Jackson said, have tended to provide an increase in the ratings for schools that serve many students from disadvantaged backgrounds, or that have a majority low-income population, or both. GreatSchools has been criticized for relying primarily on test scores for its ratings, which tends to give affluent schools an edge and thus steers potential homeowners to schools that tend to have fewer minorities.

In 2017, the organization started using equity measures a part of its calculations, in addition to test scores. These changes are an evolution of that work, said Deane.

“It’s very important that individual schools that are showing high growth and serving their students well are getting credit for that hard work,” he said.

One challenge for GreatSchools is that the pandemic has upended state testing programs, which it relies on for ratings and to calculate growth. Those are issues the organization is continuing to watch, said Deane and Jackson.

GreatSchools is forming partnerships with school districts in order to roll more information out to parents about ways to support their children’s learning during the coronavirus outbreak, which has prompted a widespread shift to remote and hybrid learning. For example, the organization has partnered with Stockton ISD in California to release weekly newsletters to its parents on academic and social-emotional learning, including student worksheets aligned to academic standards. The worksheets are also available for individual families that wish to sign up.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.