A lot of us lean on measurements because we don’t want to be disappointed. We want the best, even if “the best” is subjective. What are the top Italian restaurants in South Bend on Yelp? What state has the cleanest air? What’s the best washing machine? What is the most fuel-efficient SUV? How does GreatSchools or Niche rank the schools in the district that you are moving to?
There is a lot of choice in Indiana when it comes to schools, so much so that it feels that K12 education has been transformed from a common good into a consumer good. We really want the best for our children. That’s obvious. In places where there is a glut of choice, we lean on data even more than we lean on soft ads guaranteeing things like small class sizes or schooling that is flexible to the learning preferences of the student. After all, we know those paid ads are from a school that wants the backpack full of cash your child might bring, be it from your bank account or the state’s account or an SGO or a little bit of all three.
Third-party sites like US News & World Reports, Niche, and GreatSchools pull data from the state school report card site, InView (formerly Compass). And then companies like Zillow pull data from Niche and Great Schools to help sell real estate (home buyers crave information).
Soon the state will put in place more school measurements. 2021’s HEA 1514 requires the Indiana Department of Education (IDOE) to develop dashboards that “[promote] transparency and multiple student measures, including longitudinal measures.” You can see some plans here. And you can read more on the development in a recent Chalkbeat article.
But shouldn’t the existing measures be reviewed before adding more measures? Are some of these existing measures flawed? Should we give credence to the flawed measures used in marketing by schools or third parties like Niche or GreatSchools?
Does it make sense that a high school can lose over half its 9th grade class after 3 years and still have a graduation rate of over 90 percent?
To zero in on one category of data, let’s look at how graduation rates are calculated. Does it make sense that a high school can lose over half its 9th grade class after 3 years and still have a graduation rate of over 90 percent? It is, in fact, completely possible given how IDOE calculates these numbers.
The flaws in graduation rates have been highlighted in the news over the years. A 2019 Chalkbeat report suggested that struggling high schoolers were being counseled into homeschooling so that schools could avoid reporting them as dropouts. In 2006 the Indiana Chamber expressed skepticism about official graduation rates. And back in the Bobby Knight era, the graduation rates he claimed for his IU basketball players were the subject of scrutiny and questioning. (Even before the World Wide Web we couldn’t keep data straight.)
IDOE has a five-step formula for calculating graduation rates that is set by statute, and they perform audits every four years. And yet we still have market-driven problems that are produced by the need to be the best school. It is no surprise that the drive to maintain graduation rates and score high points on other forms of measurement on the state report card, as seen on InView, has led to a push-out problem.
John Harris Loflin of Parent–Power Indianapolis conducted a recent study of the graduation rates at one school. (The study has broader implications; Loflin says, “Although the report is about the Charles A. Tindley Accelerated School, it serves as a call for transparency regarding graduation rate figures for all Indiana public schools.”)
For example: For the 2020 school year, Tindley had a graduation rate of over 90%, yet it had lost over half of its 9th grade population by the time that cohort were seniors. What happened to those 46 students? Did they graduate elsewhere? Were some told they weren’t a good fit? Would you send your child to school that has a less than 50% retention rate for a cohort? It is also important to note: Tindley is a charter school that has an accelerated program. It prioritizes college admission above all else, with an image of college acceptance letters under its mission statement.
Tindley is not an easy school. But it is a school to which people aspire to send their children. They also have a solid boys’ basketball team. You can’t see that in the data. But you can learn about that by talking to people who know the school. More about that in a bit.
Finally, Tindley’s graduation data is all over the place, which makes one wonder what other data is all over the place? How can a consumer make a good decision when the data varies from site to site?
Here are the Tindley graduation rates found on various sites within a search conducted in less than 1 hour. Niche: 85%, GreatSchools: 98%, U.S. News & World Report: 81.1%.
The worst one is the state website, InView. On InView’s main page, Tindley has a graduation rate of 95.1% for the 2019–2020 year.
Using the “Compare” feature you get an 81.1% graduation rate—for the same year? for a different year? With no explanation or visible reason, the shopping comparison tool produces a different graduation rate. It’s bad that the state website can’t even produce consistent or CLEAR data.
Simply put, data this confusing, opaque, and contradictory is bunk for a consumer. My advice to parents and caregivers is to ignore all this data. It is flawed to the point that you can’t really get a clear picture of what happens in a school. Instead, rely on word of mouth. Call and visit the school you are exploring as a possibility for your child. Follow the school on social media. Attend a PTO meeting. Attend a school event. Ask important questions like, Are your teachers state-certified? How long is recess? Do you offer music, gym, and art? Do you have an after-school or before-school program? What happens if my child falls behind or excels faster than other children? Do you have a school therapist? Is the school financially stable and when is your charter (if a charter school) up for renewal? Ask to speak to parents who send their children to the school. Word of mouth may be your best option. Caveat emptor!
For more on marketing and schools, read this blog post about virtual charter schools.
For more writing about school reform in the Indianapolis area, follow Parent Power on Facebook and read more critiques and research by John Harris Loflin.