An Inside Look at School Ratings

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Episode 62│An Inside Look at School Ratings

Wednesday, Sep. 28, 2022

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Show Notes

Jon Deane

What goes into a school rating? School ratings often leave families feeling confused, wondering what a singular number tells them about the quality of a school. To get to the bottom of this, our hosts interviewed Jon Deane, CEO of who shares how families can use school ratings as a starting point for making informed choices for their child’s education.


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Like this episode? Share your thoughts with us via social media @National PTA and by using #BackpackNotes. Be sure to visit for more resources from today’s episode.


Helen Westmoreland: Welcome back to Notes from the Backpack a PTA podcast. I'm Helen Westmoreland, and I am incredibly excited to introduce all of you today to my new, most fabulous co-host Kisha DeSandies Lester. Hi Kisha.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: Hi Helen and I am equally excited to join the Notes from the Backpack team. I am a mom of two, I have a six-year-old who is a first grader and a 20-month-old, who also thinks she's a six-year-old, but that's for later. Let's jump right in, because today we are thinking about how we measure a school's quality, as parents. When you research a school for your child, how do you know if it's a great school or just, okay. A lot of us look at the school rating, but it's so overwhelming. So I often ask myself, what do these ratings mean and how do they come up with this number? What are the implications of the ratings for my child who might be at this school? Hopefully, we can all figure that out today.

Helen Westmoreland: That's right, Kisha, I think we will. These are questions lots of parents have, particularly with school age children. Today, we're diving into school ratings with a leader in the field, Jon Deane. Jon is the CEO of, a national education nonprofit that supports parents pursuing a great education for their child, schools striving for excellence and communities working to diminish inequities in education. Jon brings over two decades of experience in K12 education previously serving as a math teacher and school administrator. He is also the father of a fifth and seventh grader, welcome Jon.

Jon Deane: Thanks for having me.

Helen Westmoreland: We are very excited to have you here. So, we always like to start off just hearing a little from you. How did you get into the role you are in now? What got you interested in school ratings?

Jon Deane: Well, I could go back a long way. I'll say I've been in education about 20 years. I started my career as an accountant before I became an educator, that wasn't for me and I became a teacher. And as you said, a school, a principal and a school administrator and throughout my journey, I was looking at the ways in which people interact with schools. They’re such complex places.

So much goes into creating a great experience for a kid. And we try all sorts of things to improve those experiences to make sure every child is in a place where they can thrive. Through the early part of my career in education, I hadn't spent as much time looking at parents and how they experienced the work. And then I became a parent and I realized quickly, oh my gosh, this is such a complex thing to understand our own, my own child's their wants their dreams, what we want for them. And, and where they're going to go.  My kids were in San Francisco when they were little. San Francisco had a hundred options that we could preference on our first application for kindergarten. And that was overwhelming to say the least.

And so I had my first experience trying to ask, How do people experience these different schools? And what's important to them. That predated my time at great schools, but it, it informed a lot of how I learned how other parents were thinking and what we could be looking for, and so when an opportunity came to really consider at scale, what do parents looking at and how might we help parents take this one really critical decision and make it a little easier for them.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: Okay, Jon. So what exactly goes into a school rating on Great Schools?

Jon Deane: I guess, first of all, I wanna acknowledge that while the signals we have are really easy to interpret for busy parents. It's also really important that we look beyond the numbers, as we think about quality. We try to provide a whole range of information for parents to understand what's going on, to give them a number, to give them information and to provide context so they can really dig deeper.

One of the most important things we do have is a one to five star parent rating. So we gather information from parents and we want to, we weave that into everything we're doing. We put that front and center, because we think it's so important for parents to understand that. So that said, let me summarize the ratings for you and what goes into them.

We start, we have a summary rating. It goes on a scale from 1 to 10. In that one being the lowest performing schools on that rating and 10 being the highest. The summary rating consists, four themed ratings or is made up of four themed ratings, we call them. The first is what we call a student progress rating, also known as growth. It measures how students in the school are doing growing academically over a period of time. For high schools, we have a college readiness rating. We think it's really important to share with parents how a school is doing, preparing students for college and careers, so we provide a college readiness rating.

We have an equity rating which is one of the things we're really proud of, because we deeply believe that a sign, of school quality is a school that serves all students really well. We want to make sure that we include a measure of how schools are doing, serving all student groups, especially disadvantaged, historically marginalized subgroups. So we have an equity rating and then we have our test score rating, which is again, a measure of student's academic performance on their end of the year assessments in the state. And the four ratings are not weighted equally into that summary rating. The student progress or growth rating is weighted more heavily than the others. We try to make it as transparent as possible. We have a little circle where you can read the methodology and exactly where everything comes from.

Helen Westmoreland: Awesome. Thank you. So I wanna dive in Jon, I was just in the process of trying to find a new home, and on all the home websites you can filter by school ratings from Great Schools. And I was really struggling for a couple reasons with that. And I would love to hear your advice for folks like me going through that process. One was like, I didn't know what number to pick, like what was quote unquote, a "good school?"

Second was, in my mind my best guess was like maybe a seven, and then there were no schools, in any area I could afford, that were a seven. And then, I was also really wanting to try to find a school that was diverse and noticing that, here in the greater Washington area, there aren't a lot of schools that are serving all children equally.

So schools that were rated higher tended to have more homogenous populations. Does that experience ring true to what you hear from parents and how do you advise parents when they're sort of struggling with just the number to kind of get underneath it?

Jon Deane: It it's a fun process to go through and it can be very enlightening and also, I think probably a little bit frustrating at times as I think you probably experienced, because there's so much that we want to share with a parent and so much that a parent wants to know. I think the first thing to know is the rating is a starting point for understanding how well a school serves all students. There's so much that goes into that, and every community, every school, every parent, every student is unique in some way. And so understanding what you're looking for and what the school offers, I think is the most critical thing. You kind of highlighted some of the things you're looking for, and I think the first thing to start with is the, the numbers will tell you some circumstances that are happening at that school.

They'll give you a sense of where schools are relative to each other and what's going on. And then you're gonna ask yourself those questions about what area you're going to be in. And within that area, what are those things you value? And so we have tools on the site that help people search for how a school is serving different populations. And if you if you wanna know, is there a school in my area where my child may do better, you have the ability to search for different schools in different ways. We try to uncover those questions that you're asking Helen and give tools to parents to make those a little bit easier. We also encourage every family to start with a piece of information and then to, if you can get into the school, go see the school.

They're very few, exceptions that are better than just to get a chance to see an experience and see if it's what you're looking for. That it hasn't been possible for everyone in the past couple of years. I think during the pandemic, some people were able to virtually visit schools and they might have actually been able to see more places than they could before, but you couldn't really get a feel for what was going on.,But the experiences that you're sharing common across the country, in some way, but the stories will be a little different depending on where you are. And I think that's one of the things we know there is, there's no one size that's right for everybody.

Helen Westmoreland: Yeah. I got the question a lot from some of my friends who, you know, are similar in the process, like what should be the starting place number? So mine was four like that's, that was the number I ended up filtering for. And our neighborhood school I think is rated at five, but when I did dig a little deeper, as you said, looking at some of the school reviews, looking at some of those other things, I felt like it's a really good school. So is it fair to say, just if the number is low, it doesn't necessarily mean it's a bad school?

Jon Deane: The number tells you again, information about the school on, on the set of criteria that we're using. It's our attempt to give you as clear of a picture as we can, to start with, as you, as you digest that information. But we know so many things are so important. And as you're describing there are elements of the community that you may value more. There is the environment or what we call the school climate that is incredibly important to parents. And so we don't put all that information, always in a rating. We try to provide as much of that information as we can. If you look at a profile of one of the schools on, on, you'll find information about the environment about teachers, about students. We are working actively every day to try to provide more information based on what we hear that parents value and what is helping parents make those decisions. So we're trying to provide that information because Helen, as you said, the, the number may be a starting point and different people will approach that in different ways. But we know that the rest of that information that helps round out that picture for you is critical.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: So, you know, Jon, I was married, we purchased a house, moved in right after we got married, and then got pregnant. My husband and I wanted to live in a community that we felt comfortable in that was near family. We wanted a certain kind of home and we focused on that, not thinking about kids in the relations to school, let's put it that way. Of course, as I saw my son who is in first grade now, saw the kind of person he was and how he learned. And he's getting two and he is becoming three and I'm like, okay, I need to start thinking at schools and you know how parents talk? It's like, well, what's the ratings at the schools. They're really low in my area across the county. It's particularly in my area, not because we aren't a great community, it's just where the schools are rating. And so I wanted to ask you, on the other end, what do you say to parents who feel really frustrated, because their schools are rated low. The information on the site isn't promising. But, in my community, what you have is a lot of parents who are, becoming very engaged and trying to improve the quality of schools across the board, especially in our region of the county. So, what can families and communities do to improve the school quality, so the school ratings can get higher?

Jon Deane: I love that parents are getting engaged and, and actively working to support their kids. I think that's an important thing to recognize, is that every parent wants their child to be in the best place possible. And our goal is for every child to be in a place where they can thrive. And for some people that may be a search for a different school or a different a region as, Helen experienced, and for some it maybe here's where we are, now how can I get engaged and help my child and help this school? We have grade-based newsletters that we provide free to parents. So you might have a third grader and we'll send you a tip every week about how you can help your child engage in school more effectively, or engage in their learning more effectively. On our site, we have an incredible amount of content around best practices that are happening at other schools around the country, ways for parents to get engaged.

And that goes on everything from, you know, asking for more data transparency, to have awareness of what's happening and how a school is looking at their overall performance and what they're doing to things that you can do to support in the classroom, asking a teacher for the presence of a particular program or practice, a variety of things that we try to support parents in doing, because we know that engaging parents throughout that process creates a continually improving community and parents who are engaged and aware will  stay and support their kids.

And so we know it's not on the parent to drive the improvement of the school directly. We have the teachers are our core, the school leaders, the administrators, the folks who are really running and leading the schools. But so, we don't put the burden on parents to try to drive that improvement, but we empower the parents to say, what is it that we could be looking for? How can we help? Where can we weigh in? And we've seen communities start incredible conversations especially around things like equity. The equity rating that we have, in a lot of communities has opened up great conversations around, Hey, wait a minute, we hadn't noticed there was a gap here between student group performance. What might we do to better serve all of our kids?

Kisha DeSandies Lester: I think that's great, because I think sometimes parents feel helpless and they feel like it's all on them to fix it. And it's not, it does take a, I mean, they say it takes a village, but it does take the whole community.

Helen Westmoreland: It's a saying that people know for a reason.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: It is so true, but it really, it does take the whole community to come together. There are a lot of things in my community there's a core group of parents that my son's playing soccer with. They're like, oh, did  you hear about this school? This is what we're doing for this new school that we're building, this is, these are the types of things that we're gonna focus on. So we can improve our schools and get people excited. It's a buzz. And I think, knowing that we have a partner in your, your group and other community leaders can help us grow, because it's a long game, we think about just our kids, but it's for the whole community.

Jon Deane: Yeah. It, I love that you're taking that view, looking at your own kids and the community. I think that is the most critical piece. If we are acknowledging that we all want the best for our kids, that we support them and we fight for our kids. And as we also do that, if we're fighting for other kids as well, that's where we're really gonna see great improvements.

Helen Westmoreland: I wanna take sort of the flip side of that too, is like continuing to evolve the numeric rating. It will never encompass all the things right that parents care about. But, you mentioned the four main domains that that's based on now. And I know that those have probably evolved a lot since you started years ago. I'm guessing that's limited by the data that's available, that you can actually compare across schools. What's on your wish list for what data would be more universally available from schools to be able to continue to evolve those ratings, so they're reflective of all the things that, you know, parents are looking for?

Jon Deane: Oh, Helen I don't know if we have enough time to talk about my wish list here today. But you are you're right on so many levels that it, has evolved over time. And I think one of the, the most important things to acknowledge is that we collectively have a better understanding of what's going on in schools in both how to measure that and how to understand it.

If you had asked people 10 years ago about growth or student progress ratings, that data was very limited, even a couple of years ago, we still have a few states that don't provide that data. Across the country, the formats that that data's provided in are dramatically different, almost everywhere. So, our goal is to find disaggregated data where we can really understand different groups. For us to be able to shine an equity light on the information is so critical. And the more that data is transparent and available, we think the better parents can use it. We're really interested in what we hear from parents about what they're looking for.

We hear parents asking for information about trust, about the community, about commitment, about safety, about effective teaching, school leadership. Often that's measured through surveys of teachers and parents and students. And so that information is available at different levels in different places. Some states and districts are really great about making it front and center in what they report and sharing it out, and we try to capture that. And in other places it's newer data or they either don't have as much of a history with it, or they haven't made it as available yet. And so we're constantly pushing, to try to make data more transparent and accessible because we can show you what it looks like when parents have access to it and how it informs their decisions. And as you both have acknowledged, so much goes into this, you wanted more information than even we're able to give, and we know that that's important to you. But we also know that there are other, there's other data that is really critical for parents around programs happening in schools around rigorous offerings.

We formed a partnership with the college board to provide information about AP course offerings there's elements like that, that are coming all along the way. We have created a college success award that we use to highlight schools that are preparing students for post-secondary success in, in college or career, because we know it's critical, not just to look at what's happening in the school at the high school level, but what's happening beyond and that data comes from multiple sources, in every state. And so our ability to pull that data and present it together and present it to a parent, gives us a chance to look at schools in a different light.

Helen Westmoreland: Mm-hmm. Is it fair though, to sort of assume that to Kisha's important question that another thing parents can do is actually push their districts, states to make this information more publicly available so that organizations like Great Schools can use it and have that reflected in your work?

Jon Deane: I think it's not just fair, it's actually one of the best levers that we know of, and what I would tell the audience here is it doesn't take that many people to ask for something to see movement. What we find is that legislators, policymakers, when they get a chance to hear from parents about how they would actually use data, if it was available, they listen. We have examples all across the country of Departments of Education saying, oh, I wasn't aware that people actually wanted that or would use it when they open a period for us to provide comment and, explain why something would be useful. We get a lot of places that really listen to that and in really value that input, it's just hard for them to channel it.

So we try to provide opportunities for parents to react. We'll present data in one location and then put, you know, ask parents in another place. Hey, did, were you aware this data was available over here? If you want to have access to it, here's what you might be able to do, and we try to partner with groups that can help raise awareness on a local level.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: So another thing that I found interesting is just the comments and the reviews how they play into a parent's decision. I have looked at ratings of schools and parents talk about their personal.

Helen Westmoreland: The reviews are like totally where it's at, right?

Kisha DeSandies Lester: Yeah. It's like they talk about their personal experience or maybe something, some theme that's going on in school. And, it's parents, kids that are there, or that used to be there. And the reoccurring thing that I've seen that popped up in my community is bullying. And it's like, well, where do you put that in the rating? How much should parents look at the comments in the reviews and how can that help parents make a decision?

Jon Deane: I think the comments and the reviews are a critical part of the overall picture of what we try to present, right. Our goal is to, for everyone, looking at our information, can we get information that's gonna help match your experience from someone like you, from someone who might share what you're looking for. So we are constantly, we creating tools to make it easier to leave reviews. We create tools so that school leaders can claim their profile and add information about the school from their perspective as well. And both those elements of what we do are constantly evolving based on what we're hearing, because we think it's really important for parents to be able to leave a review for another parent that will help inform, their decisions.

So I, I think it's just one of those things where you're gonna make your choice as to how you put pieces of information together. Some schools have a lot of reviews in a very active community and some have less. And our hope is that we continue to build that base of reviews up over time. But as with anything, I think you should take that information and, use it to assess your own bias, whether you had an idea about what was going on and this information matched that or not. And, then think how might I critically explore what I just learned here and what I saw I think, issues that are for one individual and what their child's experience were, are things that you should take in stride and understand, okay, this is how a particular child experiences and a particular parent did. And then, put that alongside all the other information you have.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: That's really good, Jon, and it's important that you say There are a lot of parents out there that don't know that they can do exactly what you just said. They feel stuck. And so I think it's really important that we're having this conversation so people don't feel like they've gotta buy this really expensive house to get a seven school or right, or live in a box and, walk a kid to school. So this has been great.

Helen Westmoreland: Well, it's also I appreciate not all parents are looking for the same thing. Right? Those sorts of more qualitative pieces like the reviews, like what courses are offered, like all of those things, it's not gonna be the same parent to parent. So I think one of my takeaways from this conversation is don't, don't stop at the number. Like the number is the starting place, not the ending place to really make the best choice, if you have one. And acknowledging that not all parents actually have the ability to make that choice. But also to really leverage this as a tool to let other families know what's going on. It's  a great tool for communication about what's going on in the school community.

Jon Deane: I couldn't agree with you more. And I would say it's a great tool for communication. It's a great tool for just raising awareness and starting conversations. As I mentioned, when you have a chance to look at the disaggregated data and the equity rating, and you can say, who's in our school and how are we doing serving them all? What does that mean for the kind of conversations we have when we're talking about our budget or when we're looking at resource allocation across the school, how do we serve kids well? Every school's a little different. Every parent's a little different. What matters to us is that every child gets to a place where they have an opportunity to, to be successful and thrive and that we hope that we can help empower parents on their journey to get there.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: And that's why we're here. Right? Helen. That's why we do this.

Helen Westmoreland: That's right. Jon, we've enjoyed this conversation so much. We wanna give you a chance before we wrap, if there's anything you've shared or haven't shared, that you really wanna emphasize for our listeners, as a takeaway for today.

Jon Deane: Well, I do wanna highlight we've just released our college success awards, honoring schools across the country. We have about 1700 schools that are winning the college success award this year. And those are places where schools are doing a really excellent job at preparing all their students for success in college and career. And so, we encourage you to go to see if your school won, see if a school in your area won and start a conversation about what those schools were doing that really helped produce those results.

Helen Westmoreland: Excellent. So you shared the website if folks wanna learn more about school quality or anything from today's conversation, any other social media handles or resources you wanna lift up?

Jon Deane: You can find us on all the channels, wherever we're at great schools I would say our weekly grade by grade newsletter that we have, if you haven't had a chance jump onto the site you can find it in a variety of places, but you'll get an opportunity to sign up. And I, as a parent, find that to be one of the most helpful things in my inbox. I often think, how did my team know this was a thing I was looking to do this week with my fifth grader. How did they know? And I think that's one of the things that comes over time that, that parents have a lot of challenges that are different and a lot that are the same. And the more we can support people through that journey, the better off we are.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: Does make you feel better when you

Jon Deane: It does.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: This has been a great first episode for me, it was great having you, Jon, I was really excited to speak to you today, and this has been great.

Jon Deane: Thanks for letting me be part of your first episode Kisha.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: Thank you, and to those of you listening to this episode, thank you for joining us for more resources related to today's episode check out

Helen Westmoreland: Thanks for tuning in. Please join us next time