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Into crowded field of school data comes a user-friendly report

When Jacqueline Wayans helped her second daughter pick a high school, they were confident about their choice.

After all, Wayans is a savvy parent who had worked for years visiting and reviewing schools for Insideschools, the online guide to city schools. Her older daughter had attended a city school with an arts theme and gotten a good education, and her younger daughter’s top pick, Manhattan’s High School for Fashion Industries, had gotten an “A” from the Department of Education.

It wasn’t until after her daughter enrolled that Wayans learned Fashion Industries only offered three years of math classes. And when the school added a fourth math class, she didn’t find out until it was too late that her daughter’s scores were too low for her to qualify. Now, when Wayans’s daughter starts college this fall, she’ll need to take remedial math.

“I just assumed that there was a four-year sequence,” Wayans said today during a panel discussion about metrics for assessing high schools that Insideschools hosted. “My older daughter had it at her high school and I just thought it was there.”

Wayans isn’t alone in trusting a small sliver of information to make the potentially life-changing decision about where to attend high school. Some parents and students choose schools by their names, their sports teams, or their neighborhoods, without digging deep to understand what kind of education the schools offer.

Now entering its second decade, Insideschools (where I also worked from 2005 to 2008) is preparing to launch a tool to help parents like Wayans — and those far less savvy than she is — make better choices. The tool, called “Inside Stats,” is a consumer-oriented presentation of public data about high schools that is meant to complement, or perhaps even rival, the information the city distributes.

The annual high schools directory, issued this week to next year’s eighth-graders, is based largely on schools’ self-reporting. And the progress reports that award schools their annual letter grade are rich in data but difficult for parents to decipher, said Clara Hemphill, Insideschools’ founder and the panel’s moderator.

And neither document signals whether schools are safe or how it feels to be students in them. That’s what parents and students most want to know, said Wayans, who conducted focus groups of families as part of the Inside Stats development process.

So this fall, when Inside Stats goes live on each school’s Insideschools online page, visitors to the site will be able to see whether each school requires a uniform, lets students go out for lunch, gives students access to lockers, and makes them pass through metal detectors to enter each day. They will also see the question “Do students like this school?”, followed by an answer based on results of the Department of Education’s annual survey.

Other information on the reports reflect the same data that the city’s progress reports include, such as graduation and college attendance rates. But the data will take a different form. Instead of seeing a complex representation of statistical “score bands,” Inside Stats readers will see a flowchart of the paths previous students have taken after enrolling. And instead of parsing the language of “peer groups,” the reports simply identify whether a school is “beating the odds” compared to other schools with similar students.

The reports also include some information not reflected on either city document, such as the graduation rate for students with disabilities and whether classes are getting bigger or smaller. Class size on its own might not indicate school quality, Hemphill said, but large classes mean teachers are less likely to assign rigorous work that is challenging to grade.

“We want to determine if this tool or something like it can help parents encourage and reward schools where teaching is deep,” said Andrew White, director of the New School research institute that hosts Insideschools, before the panel began.

The Department of Education is trying to shift parents’ attention to the quality of schools’ instruction by adding data about how many students meet college entrance standards to its progress reports, said Martin Kurzweil, the department’s accountability czar, who helped Insideschools wrangle data for the Inside Stats project. College-readiness metrics will factor into high schools’ letter grades for the first time this fall.

But getting parents and students to prioritize that information when choosing a high school could require a substantial change in culture.

“I don’t get that many questions about curriculum. I think there are a lot of assumptions. I don’t think [parents] realize how much curriculum is in the hands of individual teachers and individual principals,” said Miriam Nightengale, the principal of Columbia Secondary School. “If parents asked more questions around engagement in the classroom I think they would not be so surprised.”

More often, families are searching for something that’s hard to pin down in data when they tour schools, she said. They want to know whether the values their children would be exposed to at school match their values at home.

“I don’t know how to put that in a progress report, but I think parents are very attuned to that,” she said.

Nightengale said she had encountered parents who turned away from the school after noticing pregnant students or who had said that they “just like the LaGuardia side better,” referring to the selective arts school located across the street from the Martin Luther King Campus.

“Sometimes all those other considerations are completely secondary to ‘who is my child going to school with?'” she said.

Insideschools plans to continue to refine the Inside Stats reports over time. One suggestion Hemphill received today was from Bob Hughes, president of New Visions, which supports dozens of small high schools in the city. Hughes urged the Inside Stats to shed light on how schools support students who struggle.

“What’s the [Regents exam] passage rate for students on the second, or third or fourth time? Because that gives me a sense of how the school’s going to intervene,” he said.

And whatever gets measured is likely to influence principals’ behavior, just as some principals have responded to demands for proficiency by focusing on the students on the verge of becoming proficient, Kurzweil said.

“Everything you measure has some consequence and it’s really difficult to take that all into account while still offering up an evaluation that’s sensible and meaningful for the people you’re evaluating and the people you’re trying to share the evaluations with,” he said.

Hughes couched the problem in literary terms. “When I was a school finance attorney the joke was that school finance cases are like Tolstoy novels — big, brawling, lot of actors, and everyone’s dead in the end,” Hughes said. “I think school accountability questions are similar.”

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