Look Beyond Test Scores When Evaluating Schools

School quality matters with respect to home values; this is inarguable.

Zestimates and locality assessments matter to a certain degree when evaluating home values.

What about school ratings on websites? Take the following email exchange from one of my (very smart) clients. (I’ve anonymized the schools for this post, and I apologize in advance for how it breaks up the story, and I’ve edited a bit for readability):

“We’ve noticed that () Elementary seems not to get the same sort of notoriety around here as some of the other schools, right. Why is that? Your kids go / went there, right? Are you happy with it? We can’t figure out what would be causing that perception.

We’ve opened our thinking to include the possibility of getting something more affordable for now with the idea of selling it in a few years when our situation hopefully improves. That’s why we considered buying the place we’re renting in our current neighborhood. We’ve seen a few places that fall in the () Elementary district that we’ve liked, and the real estate in that district seems to be more affordable than real estate in other areas. We’ve been reluctant to give it much consideration simply because the houses there seem to stay on the market a lot longer and a quick turnaround seems a lot less likely than if we tried the same thing with a (for instance) house in our current neighborhood

No hurry at all…it would just be nice to hear your opinion on the matter.”

I’m going to work on a post addressing this, but the short answer is that the test scores are higher at the other school in that area.

As parents, we loved the school. Peers and friends love and loved the school. It’s small, most everyone seems to know everyone else, and the leadership is remarkable.

I think we’re in a phase of self-fulfilling prophesies for each school, or the snowball effect, or whatever analogy you prefer. Parents at (this school) to whom I’ve spoken and know absolutely love the school, many of whom themselves are teachers.

That said, the real estate impact is there and is significant. I can’t figure out a way around that, other than getting more parents to post positive reviews on the sites.

That’s kinda what I could deduce about the whole situation. It’s weird…now that “ratings” are posted online, people seem to obsess over them where before, they’d just rely on what they’d heard from other people. I’ve heard nothing but good things about () Elementary, but everyone seems to be hell-bent on getting their kids into one of the others. When you ask why, they cite ratings or test scores or other things that don’t actually answer my question.

Have you seen the John Oliver bit on standardized testing?

Getting ready to show a house… But my quick response is that people are sheep. 🙂

Something I’d be particularly interested in knowing is whether or not teachers at the middle school notice any difference in preparation levels between kids from the various elementary schools. Do you know any who might be able to speak to this?

I think people do whatever they perceive to be the best thing for their kid. If I see a big difference in ratings and hear people say one schools is better than another, even without any apparent evidence backing the ratings or statements I’m left thinking that I must be missing something and am really nervous about the possibility of sending my kid to the “wrong” school. That definitely qualifies as sheep-like behavior, but I really do think people come by that honestly and only (mostly?) with the best intentions for their kids.

Changing that god-awful GreatSchools ratings system would be wonderful. Looks like for Virginia they use test scores exclusively to come by a rating. Does that mean (perceived great school) teaches kids entirely based on what’s on standardized tests, and (perceived not-so-great-school) teaches kids real, translatable skills (not test-taking) and makes standardized tests low priority? Could they maybe give a mean? a median? is there a Gaussian distribution or is it heavy-tailed? are there annual trends? And for the other states that use more than test scores…what in the world does “college readiness” mean for an elementary school?

Schooldigger.com at least shows some trends, though the trends don’t tend to favor (the school we’re considering). They’re showing that in 2011, (the school) ranked above 75% of the state’s elementary schools. Suddenly, four years later, they rank lower than 80% of them??? Seems really hard to believe. If it’s true, then what is the district doing about it?

Sorry for going on about this, Jim, but junk science really pisses me off.”

I love that junk science pisses off my clients, and that they are willing to seek out real, defensible data and answers. The longer, short answer is that yes, school ratings affect property values, and the only real way in my opinion to assess school quality is by visiting the school, meeting teachers, parents, administrators, and asking questions and evaluating for yourself.

Teaching to the test affects society … and not in a good way. Accepting ratings without digging into the quality of the ratings and data is bad for everyone – teachers, kids, home values, and the community.



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  1. John Titus September 16, 2015 at 09:56

    The advice to visit the school and talk to the professionals is exactly right. Be sure to include informal chats/questions with any of the support staff you see….custodians,office staff,library folks. This means that you have to visit on a school day.You can tell within a couple of minutes of arriving in the office area if the environment is inviting and comfortable or confusing and unorganized. A clean school is usually another encouraging sign. The students that you see should look “happy”.You can learn a lot in a brief period of time by simply observing and listening.There is nothing wrong with visiting more than once.
    I am a retired middle and high school principal(44 yrs.).I know that schools can put on a song and dance for visitors.Don’t be afraid to ask the hard questions about your concerns….discipline,attendance,parent involvement,safety procedures,etc.You will get a sense of the place in your gut….trust your instinct.

    1. Jim Duncan November 9, 2015 at 19:15

      This is outstanding insight. Thank you!

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