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Beyond Test Scores, What Really Makes a “Good” School?

What makes a “good” school? Ask 10 parents, and you’ll get 10 different answers.

When this question is broached in online community groups — often by those relocating to a new city, or house hunting locally and trying to focus their search — many parents will cite test scores as the holy grail for schools. Since yearly standardized testing became the norm in 2001 with the introduction of No Child Left Behind, parents have been using the data to guide their school decisions.

Some parents, though, are beginning to push back against this singular view of achievement and are seeking to broaden the definition of a “good” school. We know why parents choose top-ranked schools, but why might some parents deliberately choose schools that are not? What alternatives do parents find when their children are struggling in the neighborhood school? Niche talked to several families about their experiences.

Location, Location, Location?

Heather Anderson, mother of twin middle schoolers in Minneapolis, initially moved to the city from a small town. “Everyone said move to [a specific district] — that’s where the good schools are.” They bought a home based on this advice. They found schools with great test scores, but lots of other things were problematic.

“We felt like they were so concerned about the school’s image that they didn’t want reports of [troubling] behavior or kids struggling.” Therefore, teachers didn’t really feel comfortable sharing what was going on in their classroom. And while Heather shares that the school had a lot of really great teachers, she also felt that, for example, that there weren’t enough behaviorists. There were just too many issues to overlook. They began to search within the city schools, specifically seeking a global majority or more integrated school for their twins.

“Everyone said move [here] — that’s where the good schools are.” They bought a home based on this advice. They found schools with great test scores, but lots of other things were problematic.

“The Realtor will say ‘This is a good school,’ moms on the playground say ‘This is a good school.’ So you listen to them,” Anderson says, “and all they have is a reputation based on test scores which is really such a small part of life. I wanted to see teachers who were happy in their jobs.”

The Andersons toured 10 schools. Some things that stood out to the couple about the school their kids now attend were the positive attitudes of the teachers and how connected they were to the students. She knows there are some aspects of their school that are not as academically rigorous as the school they left, but believes that the other skills they are building are just as important.

“They can ask for help when they need it, they can think on their feet, they can negotiate spaces with adults, they get chances to lead.” Anderson believes there are many ways for children to grow beyond what simple test scores would show.

On Fitting In

Kellie Kasbee, a mother of three in Pittsburgh, faced a unique decision with her eldest son, 17-year-old Malakai. A student of color and currently a junior in the Pittsburgh Public School system, he was initially accepted on scholarship into a pricey private school in the Pittsburgh area. “He was also accepted to a teaching magnet in the city schools, and I was worried about the lack of diversity at the private school. I was worried he wouldn’t fit in.”

Kasbee ended up choosing to keep her child in the public school system and turned down the private school scholarship. Since then, Malakai has become very involved in the foreign language program at his city school, is already traveling to Italy and preparing to study in Latvia for the summer. “It was the best decision turning it down,” Kasbee shares, even though many around her questioned her choice. Her son has blossomed in part, she believes, from feeling comfortable in his surroundings.

Nykkia and Marellus McCray are raising their four children in the Cleveland area and are facing a decision similar to Kasbee’s. They initially didn’t research schools when they had a short window to find a new home. “We moved where we could and hoped for the best.” Their home school within the Cleveland Metropolitan School District ended up being very underfunded, and she found her eldest struggling in first grade.

He is academically gifted, but his school had little resources to support his unique needs. “Money changes everything in a school,” Nykkia notes sadly. She shares that many of the kids in their home schools are in poverty, and lottery systems exist for different schooling options such as charter and magnet schools. Not everyone gets a shot at these specialized options.

Her own experience as a gifted student in two very different school districts — one underfunded and one well-resourced — made her seek a different situation for her children. She enrolled her son in the Menlo Park Academy Charter School for gifted children, and has been very happy. “There are open learning spaces, no walls, lots of psychiatric support, and lots of extracurriculars and parent involvement.” She supports public schools and wishes all children had access to what her kids do, but felt she needed to make the best choice for her child when given the chance.

Why We Became a Charter School Family

A Matter of Culture

One teacher, who asked to remain anonymous so that she could be candid, spoke to Niche about her experience teaching in two highly-ranked public high schools. “Even though both schools are very wealthy and rank similarly, each has a very different feel. One was very focused on superficial aspects, what it looked like from the outside. The other was focused more on academics, and it was cool to be a smart kid there.”

The school atmosphere was different in each building. Parent involvement, acceptance of challenging needs, and cohesiveness of the student body were all factors that differed between the schools. “This just shows how there is more to choosing a school than just its rankings. There is a school culture.”

“Teaching to the Test”

This educator further noted how resources and funds made it easier for both schools to function. “Because both schools have so much funding we don’t have to triage anything. Everything is a well-oiled machine.”

Both districts benefit from having a strong tax base, and it shows in the results they produce. She feels this is one of the biggest factors affecting school district test scores and rankings is the amount of funding a school receives from its tax base.

“Every time there is a new administration in the White House, we have to do something new. For the schools that don’t have as much funding, they can’t just go in and change the curriculum with each new president, but we can. So it’s not that they don’t teach well, we just have more of an ability to teach to the test.”

Sometimes Best Isn’t “Best”

She also sees downfalls to being in a highly-ranked district. In one district, each elementary student was given a tablet to take home for the year. “There is a lot of research about 1:1 exposure to tech being the best, but it takes a lot of work to integrate it in a meaningful way. Honestly, I think they just did it so that they can say they gave every kid a tablet, for the image.”

The lack of racial and socioeconomic diversity in the districts is concerning is concerning to this teacher as well. As a result, she’s pushing for more intentional bridge building and resource sharing between her current district and global majority, less resourced schools.

The Bottom Line

While each family and educator Niche talked to highlighted different reasons for choosing the academic path that they did, all noted a definition of a “good” school that goes far beyond a mere glance at statistics or the court of public opinion. Factors such as school environment, teacher attitudes, racial and cultural diversity, and special education programs all influenced families to broaden their idea of what made a school the right fit for their family.

Where To Start

If you’re wondering how to begin figuring out if a school is “good,” beyond just test scores and rankings, start by asking these questions:

1. How does the school present itself to the community? Do they tout test scores, or does what they value about themselves go beyond numbers?

2. Will my child fit in here, culturally? Will they find other students like themself? Will my child have the opportunity to learn with children from backgrounds different than our own?

3. What is the school’s or district’s approach to any unique needs my child may have?

4. Aside from its current statistics, has the school or district shown a commitment to improvement and change? Does it show progress in areas that are important to my family — both academic and in other areas?

5. Is there access to extracurriculars, electives, advanced placement/college in high school and career/vocational programming that my family is interested in?

6. How involved are the parents? What do parents in the school or district have to say about the school? Can I attend a PTO/School board meeting?

7. Do school policies related to discipline, homework, testing, school counseling, etc. align with my family’s values?

Find a school that’s a great fit for your family

Author: Meg St-Esprit

Meg St-Esprit, M. Ed. is a freelance journalist based in Pittsburgh, PA. She is a mom to four children via adoption, and enjoys writing about issues related to parenting, education, and community development. Follow Meg on Twitter , and Facebook , and check out her website