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Shawn Vestal: The ranking of elementary schools takes a bad idea and makes it worse
Nov. 17, 2021 Updated Wed., Nov. 17, 2021 at 12:17 p.m.
The annual rankings of colleges and universities by U.S. News & World Report has been a longstanding part of higher education in America – like a chronic illness.
Every year, the rankings come out. Prospective students and families devour them. Schools that do well issue news releases. Those that don’t complain about the validity of the rankings, question how accurate or useful they are, criticize the methods applied, and insist that the rankings do not tell us what they claim to tell us.
And these critics – sour grapes or not – are absolutely correct. As a measure of a “good” educational institution, the rankings are a travesty in the true sense: “a false, absurd or distorted representation.”
They are subjective in the extreme, giving great weight to peer rankings of reputations and to the size of a school’s endowment. They produce bizarre consequences – such as the efforts of colleges to attract lots of applications only to reject most of them, in order to appear more selective.
They confuse two very different elements of education: attracting the best students versus educating the students you attract. And they reinforce hierarchies of money, privilege and status in ways that punish schools serving low-income populations and students of color.
The last thing the world needs is a replication of that travesty in the K-12 education.
But here we are. The latest U.S. News rankings have added elementary and middle schools, and from them we learn – or “learn” – that a large number of Spokane schools are not “high-achieving,” compared to other schools statewide.
The new rankings tell us that Wilson Elementary is the 14th-best elementary school in Washington and the best one on the East Side. They tell us that Hutton Elementary is the 22nd best, and that Moran Prairie is 91st, and that Jefferson is 169th.
They tell us that only elementary schools on Spokane’s south side are high-achieving, and that of the district’s 34 elementary schools, 22 rank in the bottom half of all state elementary schools.
They tell us all that.
What they really tell us, though, is nothing.
They reinforce a socioeconomic mirage, in which the wealthiest, best-supported students perform well in the classroom – and we act as if the school did that. They add fuel to a status system in which the richest schools are seen as the best schools, which fuels a feedback loop of rising home prices around the “good” schools that deepens racial and socioeconomic inequalities.
They rely on a method of evaluating education that ignores almost all of the underlying factors that would differentiate a top-scoring elementary school and a bottom-scoring one, and then label that difference, simply, “quality.”
These rankings, and others like them, simply do not tell you what they claim to tell you. They tell you which schools’ students scored well on the battery of standardized tests we march them through – and this correlates directly, time and time and time again, with the wealth of the families around it.
In fact, the elementary and middle-school rankings are even more limited than those for higher ed. U.S. News says it does some statistical work to control for demographic factors, but the rankings correlate all but exactly with raw test scores – a static metric that tells you more about where a student started than how much they learned.
“There is no way that that is a good indication of whether that school is instructionally effective or not,” Tomás Monarrez, a researcher at the Urban Institute who studies school segregation, told Chalkbeat, a nonprofit journalism website covering education. “It’s more noise in an already noisy environment.”
Aaron Pallas, a Columbia University sociologist, examined the middle-school rankings in New York City, and found they correlated strongly with family wealth and with a students’ “incoming proficiency.”
“What the USN&WR rankings do, essentially, is identify schools that have been successful in enrolling higher-achieving, more affluent students,” he wrote in the Hechinger Report, another nonprofit organization covering education and equality. “The focus is rather problematically on inputs rather than outputs. Shouldn’t we be far more interested in outputs, such as how schools contribute (or not) to student learning and development?”
What Pallas found in New York City is apparent in Spokane, as well. The schools that ranked highly on the list are exactly the ones you would guess, by their neighborhood, would rank highly. Those that ranked low – well, you can guess those, too.
With respect to Wilson and Hutton, we can’t remotely conclude from these rankings that they are the best elementary schools in town. With respect to the fine elementary schools of Spokane’s South Hill, we can’t remotely conclude that they and only they are educating students at a high level.
In fact, chances are good that if there is such a thing as one “best” elementary school in the city, it’s one of those that ranks poorly – one doing a good job in the hardest circumstances, with students who started well behind their peers across town.
On this, the rankings are silent.
And in the areas where they aren’t silent, they’re useless.