Our school district paid niche.com $9,900 in 2020 to promote their rankings of our schools. My opinion is that Niche is not a particularly reputable ranking site (facebook scandal, company renaming and rebranding, pushing schools to pay for a “premium profile”) and I think that whatever benefit is gained from the online advertising is likely outweighed by the stigma from paying a ranking website. I have been surprised at how often our school leaders have tried to use rankings to downplay concerns and shield themselves from criticism. I have seen it in response to my email questions when rather than providing an answer, I’m just told that our schools are highly ranked. I have seen it on the school district website and in popup web advertisements they make me click to dismiss. I have seen it on the electronic signs in front of our schools. I’ve certainly seen it at school board meetings. Each time, it makes me cringe.
However, I agree that school rankings matter. I looked at measures of school quality, including school rankings, when we moved here to help us decide where we wanted to buy a home. School rankings from sites like newsweek.com and usnews.com primarily use school-specific measures of student outcomes from the Indiana Department of Education and the College Board. Each ranking site uses a different weighting scheme, but the same set of factors are frequently used to rank schools: ISTEP math and reading, AP exams, SAT scores, and graduation rate. West Lafayette Jr./Sr. High School has outstanding student outcomes in all these categories:
It’s clear that West Lafayette Jr./Sr. High School has some of the best student outcomes in the state. Why are students so successful here? It’s primarily because of the people who live here. Our community attracts families that value education. Education research finds that “schools bring little influence to bear on a child’s achievement that is independent of his background and general social context” (Coleman Report, 1966) or as Hanushek (2016) explains, “family background factors (education, family structure, and so forth) powerfully affect student achievement.” Teachers matter, though not nearly as much as families (Chetty et al., 2011). WLCSC has historically attracted an above average number of excellent teachers, though recent school board decisions have pushed some excellent teachers to move to other school districts or to retire early.
Test scores and graduation rates are primarily a measure of the community, not of school buildings, school administrators, or the school board. That said, it is our school leaders’ responsibility to work to improve student outcomes and there is one area in particular that really needs improvement and it shows up in our poor rankings displayed on Zillow.com, a popular real estate listing site. Each home listing in our school district displays the GreatSchools rating of our schools. We don’t do as well on this ranking website because it includes a measure of student equity as one of the characteristics in their ranking formula. WLES (Cumberland) received a 3 out of 10 rating on equity with the comment that “disadvantaged students at this school may be falling behind other students in the state, and this school may have significant achievement gaps.” WLIS (Happy Hollow) received a 5 out of 10 equity rating and the Jr/Sr HS received a 4 out of 10 equity rating with similar comments and a great deal of achievement gap data to back up the poor ratings. My view is that the most important purpose of taxpayer-supported public education is to ensure that children from disadvantaged backgrounds have the support they need to be successful. This requires school leaders who are willing to address the challenges and barriers these disadvantaged students face. Public schools that only help advantaged students succeed are just acting like private schools.
I live here because I love our community. When members of the community ask questions of our school leaders and “rankings” is the response, I feel very disappointed. We need our school board to listen to the concerns and to stop denying that there are areas that need improvement.