School Rankings and the Diversity Penalty II

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how my colleague Tim Glynn and I recently examined elementary and high school rankings in Illinois, New Jersey, and Ohio, and sampled school report cards from 18 states. Our analysis, available here, demonstrates how rankings penalize socioeconomic and racial diversity and are biased toward wealthier and Whiter schools.

My prior post explained that because most ranking metrics fail to account for the achievement gap, wealthier and Whiter schools will almost always outrank diverse schools.  The post also hypothesized about how the choices parents make based on these ratings help fuel neighborhood and school segregation.  Now I want to discuss how alternative rankings could dampen the diversity penalty’s damaging effects.

People are drawn to the bottom-line assessment of quality that rankings provide, which means that rankings are not going to just disappear.  But there is plenty of room to improve how school rankings and ratings are calculated.  And herein lies a powerful opportunity to counteract the diversity penalty.  As research by Michael Saunder and Wendy Nelson Espeland demonstrates, one way to mitigate the harm caused by influential ranking systems is to offer competing rankings.  When a marketplace is crowded with multiple ratings, it is too loud for any single rating system to carry the day.  No single ranking system will appear authoritative because each just offers information that conflicts with that offered by others.

Right now readers are probably thinking that they can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a school ranking.  There are national ranking entities like SchoolDigger and GreatSchools, local magazines with “Best Schools” issues, and even some state department of education websites that provide ordinal ranks or allow users to compare one school to another.  The problem, however, is that almost all of these ranking systems use metrics that ignore the achievement gap. The marketplace thus becomes an echo chamber in which wealthier and Whiter schools are rewarded and diverse schools are penalized.

The key, then, is for states to develop truly alternative rankings—ones that are sensitive to the socioeconomic and racial composition of schools.  These rankings would neither penalize nor reward demographic diversity.  Instead, they would measure a school’s overall quality by comparing the performance of each of its students against the average performance of the student’s demographic peers across the state.  Indeed, New Mexico has already started down this road by including a variant of this methodology in its school assessments.

You can read more about this sort of methodology in our article.  To be clear, however, these alternative rankings would not freeze expectations for any subgroup of a school’s population.  On the contrary, a school’s ranking would benefit from better outcomes for students on both sides of the achievement gap, as well as from outperforming other schools in narrowing the gap.   These competing rankings would encourage parents to dig deeper to determine whether a school is right for their children.  That analysis would benefit students, schools, and communities alike.

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