By Joshua Benton
It’s the question every parent wants answered: How good is my child’s school?
Unfortunately, the experts you might ask – the principal, for example – often have a vested interest in making things look as positive as possible. So parents look for objective sources, such as hard data.
Thankfully, data exists in abundance for public schools, and much of it is available free on the Internet. (Private school parents should ask their schools for any available data.)
The following Web sites offer more data than you can shake a No. 2 pencil at. The main source for all of it is the Texas Education Agency, the state’s central education authority. The first site belongs to the TEA itself; the two other sites massage data in ways that you might find more useful.
There’s an important caveat to remember about data, however: Test scores and other hard data can’t sum up everything about a school.
Some of the most important school factors won’t show through the streams of digits. Like anything else, there’s no real substitute for being there.
But if data’s what you want, here’s where to go and what to look for:
Academic Excellence Indicator System
The TEA gathers and crunches all sorts of data on schools, and AEIS is the easiest way to get it. Go to the Web site and drill down to the school or district that interests you. You’ll get one l-o-o-o-o-o-ng page with hundreds of numbers, including just about any conceivable variety of TAAS passing rate. Take a moment to look at it all, but here are a few things that might be of particular
Curious about how well the school helps struggling students? Look at the heading “Progress of Prior Year TAAS Failers.” That tells you how many students who fail the TAAS one year go on to pass it the next, and how much their scores went up. Compare the figures with the averages for the rest of the state; if your school’s numbers are lower, that could mean trouble.
Worried that a high school spends too much time “teaching to the test,” emphasizing questions on the state’s standardized tests? Check out how kids are doing on End-of-Course Exams, the statewide tests high-schoolers take after algebra I, biology, English II and U.S. history. There’s less pressure for schools to improve EOC test scores since they don’t count in accountability ratings. Therefore, they might be a more accurate reflection of how a school does outside the testing spotlight. Compare the performance to other schools or the state average.
Interested in how non-English speakers are doing in your district? Go to the section marked RPTE (Reading Proficiency Tests in English). Check to see how limited-English students progressed from year to year. If a high percentage move quickly from “beginning” or “intermediate” to “advanced,” that’s good. If not, watch out.
Concerned about your school’s dropout rate? Don’t look at the official state-reported dropout rates – they’ve been roundly criticized as hiding the size of the problem. For a better estimate, look at “Students By Grade.” Jot down the number of 12th-graders in the most recent year. Then check out eighth-grade
enrollment four years earlier. If there’s a big gap, it can be a clue to a problem. Another caveat: Factors such as changing attendance boundaries could also cause large gaps.
Want to see how well the school prepares students for college? Look under “TAAS/TASP Equiv.” That’s shorthand for how many of the school’s graduates did well enough on the TAAS that they’d have a 75 percent chance of passing TASP, the state pre-college test. Passing TASP means the student is ready for college work. Also, look at the percentage of students scoring above the state’s “criterion score” on college entrance exams: 1110 on the SAT, 24 on
Miscellaneous: Check teacher salaries – the best teachers are often lured to districts that pay more. Look at “Budgeted Operating Expenditure Per Pupil” to see how much money a school is spending per student. Compare that with how much is spent on instruction vs. administrative costs. Check class sizes, which you can compare from school to school.
Just for the Kids (JFTK)
Just for the Kids is a nonprofit research group founded by Dallas attorney Tom Luce. It has struck a deal with the TEA that allows the group access to complete state records on students. That lets it push the data through a variety of algorithms, formulas and other things too complex for most of us to understand.
JFTK’s basic theory hangs on something called the opportunity gap. In stripped-down form, the idea is to measure the gap between how well a school performs and how well the best similar schools perform. A school whose enrollment is 95 percent poor, for instance, is measured against a school with a similar makeup. Ditto the school with almost no poor children.
You might find that your “exemplary” suburban high school, highly rated by the state, doesn’t fare as well in the JFTK model. Or you might find that an urban school ranked as “acceptable” by the state does well when compared with a similar school in Houston.
Unfortunately, the JFTK Web site can be confusing. But stick it out: The data you’ll find is usually worth the time spent clicking.
GreatSchools.net’s strength is pulling together data from disparate sources and making it intelligible to the average reader. It’s not nearly as ambitious as Just for the Kids; it’s mostly a well laid-out compendium of things you could find elsewhere, including the TEA and JFTK sites. (The group actually incorporates much of the JFTK opportunity gap data.)
In perhaps its most useful feature, the site allows you to input your home address and search for all public schools within a given distance. That can be useful if you’re looking to buy a home and trying to figure out which schools have the highest-performing students, the best paid teachers, or whatever else, in a given neighborhood.
Full disclosure: The Dallas Morning News has a business relationship with GreatSchools.net that allows the newspaper to include the data on its Web site – hence the address above.