If there was only one definition of school success, parents everywhere would be making the exact same educational choices.

But they’re not.

In 2017, approximately 5.7 million students enrolled in private schools. In the 2015-16 school year, around 2.9 million students enrolled in charter schools. The same year, parents homeschooled 1.6 million students.

As a parent, you make educational choices aimed at your child’s success because of what you value. You want your child to grow into a mature and skilled adult. Educator Jack Appleby says that’s exactly what education does—it “grows people”!

But selecting a school to help you on that journey isn’t always an easy choice. Charter school or private religious school? Homeschool or traditional public school? There’s a lot to consider.

Your values are a completely legitimate way to gauge a successful school. But, there are a few other helpful metrics you can use to inform your decision. Here are some practical ways to measure whether a school reflects your values!

What To Measure

When you’re looking for a school, there are two main categories of information to consider: school environment and student performance. A healthy school environment is fertile soil for academic growth. It paves the way for improved student performance, helping students’ reach their maximum academic potential.

1. School Environment

The Wallace Foundation suggests that you can gauge a school’s environment by looking at data from three categories: culture, connectivity, and leader engagement and effectiveness.

For example, attendance and violence rates can give you indications about the school’s culture. Parental engagement can demonstrate the school’s level of connectivity. And teacher retention can help you gauge how effective and engaged school leaders are.

As you learn more about a school, keep adding information to those three categories. Ask questions about the culture, connectivity, and leaders. Some environments are passable, but not exactly what you value for your child’s growth and learning.

2. Student Performance

After making sure the school environment checks all the right boxes, you’ll want to take a look at how the students fare. Does the school see good results? And what do these “good results” look like?

There are two ways to measure student performance: cognitive and non-cognitive measurements.

Blended learning coordinator Elizabeth Anthony comments on the balance between cognitive and non-cognitive traits, saying, “Successful programs name the skills or strengths they want to help develop. You don’t want every single one of your students to have the exact same set of character traits, but you do want every student to have a certain set of characteristics that you consider to be especially important.”

Cognitive measurements include ways of gauging students’ academic outcomes. These are typically number-based measurements like test scores, attendance, graduation, and advanced placement rates.

When a student makes progress with multiplication tables and receives a better grade, they’ve received a cognitive measurement. The same goes for when a student makes progress with dual credit classes. The college credits reflected on their transcripts are a measure of cognitive progress.

Non-cognitive measurements include student outcomes like character traits, mindset shaping, and skill development. Measuring a student’s non-cognitive development often coincides closely with individual values. This makes them harder to measure using test results and statistics.

A student may be an excellent team leader on a class project, wrapping their mind around the task and working efficiently toward a positive outcome. But they may struggle with valuing other students’ input.

There’s no multiple-choice exam for “valuing other students’ input”, even though it’s an important life skill. And that’s ok! You don’t need an exam to observe whether a school is doing its job. What matters most is the opportunity students receive to hone their skills and whether or not they’re growing.

Neither cognitive nor non-cognitive measurements are superior to the other. It may be tempting to measure school success strictly with academic metrics. But remember, education “grows people,” requiring a comprehensive outlook on success indicators.

Where To Find Measurements

Finding details about school environment and student performance is not as hard as it may seem.

Many state websites are a wonderful resource. For example, the Virginia Department of Education publishes “School Quality Profiles.” These profiles provide information about, “student achievement, college and career readiness, program completion, school safety, teacher quality and other topics of interest to parents and the general public.” By running a zip code search, you can find an individual school district’s data.

In Washington State, the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction publishes similar data. They publish the “Washington State Report Card” on their website where you can search for data by school district.

If you can’t find a school’s data online, you can personally contact the local school district and ask what school quality data they have available. They should point you in the right direction.

How To Measure

What to make of the data depends partly on your values. Numbers are important, but consider where you set the benchmark for your child’s performance and their school environment. This may change what certain numbers mean to you.

Interpreting numbers comes with a few common pitfalls. Here’s how to avoid the interpretation trap and turn confusing digits into meaningful realities:

  • The Story Behind the Numbers

Statistics have many possible interpretations. Let’s say a school’s data shows a decrease in student reading comprehension. Isn’t that bad?

In reality, this may not actually reflect individual student’s abilities changing for the worse!

Instead, it may reflect an increase in attendance by absentee students. The school may be working hard to get struggling students back in school and up to speed. It would be easy to read those numbers and assume that programs or teachers are failing. In fact, they may mean just the opposite.

Another way to avoid misinterpreting numbers—attend school board meetings! This front-row seat will give you the opportunity to ask your local education officials to explain the numbers. They’ll undoubtedly have real-world information that illuminates the data.

The public comment time in school board meetings is also a great time to advocate for better measures of success. Maybe you’d like to see your child’s school adopt new or different metrics. Communicating with school board members is a good place to start!

  • The Best Use For Individual Test Results

Jack Appleby’s education experience has ranged from classroom teacher to the international education field. He suggests one of the best ways to use test results is comparing the student to his or her own progress.

Comparing individual students to district or national averages is not very helpful. It does not account for the complexity of subgroups within those comparisons. (Like our reading comprehension example above.)

Instead, measure how a student has improved and changed compared to their previous results. Not only will this method help you, but it will help the student themself keep a realistic perspective on their academic journey.

Demystify It

Measuring a successful school is by no means an easy task, but keeping these three things in mind will help you demystify it:

  • First, understand what factors shape school environment and student performance.
  • Second, know how to access your local school’s data and your student’s records
  • And third, don’t take the data at face value. Success is best measured by staying engaged and asking for on-the-ground perspectives.

With these tips, you’ll be well on your way to finding the perfect school for your child!

Want to read more about school choice? Tackle our top 15 school choice blog posts.

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