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  • Grace Lee Sawin

    Grace Lee Sawin is a co-founder of Chicago School GPS. Chicago School GPS helps Chicago families navigate the often confusing world of public and private school searches, from preschool to high school and beyond, so that they can arrive at their school destination, no matter when they begin their journey.

    A reality check on school rankings

    What truly qualifies as “best” for one family may not be well suited to another.

    You’ve successfully navigated the nursery years, tolerated the toddler years and are pondering the preschool years when you realize, "OMG! Preschool means 'pre-SCHOOL,' and I need to find an elementary school!"

    A parent’s school search typically starts by sitting down at the computer and typing in “Best Elementary Schools." The results are populated with hits from sources such as GreatSchools, Niche, Schooldigger or School Sparrow. But what do these results mean, and should parents just add the #1 school to their list while ignoring other schools that are closer or more familiar to them? How reliable are the ratings, and how should a parent use them?

    [Related: How to apply to CPS selective enrollment elementary schools and magnet schools]

    The fact of the matter is that school ratings and rankings are a very messy, very inexact method to quantify schools. Because they are summarized by a “number” or “grade” or listed in a “ranking order," parents tend to put undue emphasis on ratings/rankings yet aren’t aware of what is being measured.

    While test scores are typically the largest component to rankings, “school fit” (literally, how good of a fit a given school is for your child) is much more than test performance and is ultimately a very personal matter that can even vary within a family from child to child. What truly qualifies as “best” for one family may not be well suited to another. While it is understandable that parents need some metric to start with, the metrics used can be skewed, out of date, or not reflective of the cohort your family will be entering the school with. 

    Following are some common misunderstandings about school rankings:

    • Ratings typically put the greatest emphasis on test scores, so better resourced families often have higher test scores and those family resources continue to benefit their children throughout their education
    • Ratings/rankings are not set in stone and can change as demographics in a school changes
    • Ratings typically reflect 3rd to 8th grade, so younger families should be wary of looking at metrics that may include a very different demographic than the one their family will be in school with
    • Ratings often lump in all programs within a school. So, those with a higher population of students with learning needs may still be a great (or even better) option for your student, but the “rankings” may not reflect the level of supports.
    • Schools can and do change, and schools in gentrifying areas may have more resources added to the school by the time your family will be attending

    [Related: 9 questions parents should be asking schools]

    Test scores don't tell the whole story

    It is somewhat pre-ordaining to use rankings to choose a school. Think about it: If test scores are a big factor in ratings/rankings, then children who have advantages and resources from birth are certainly going to test better overall and the schools near them will reap the benefits of well-resourced students and parents.

    While new parents may be more swayed by rankings, eventually we come to realize that academics alone are not a single trait to look for in a school. Social-emotional factors — as well as culture, climate and community — are just as impactful yet are hard to capture in objective metrics because they are inherently more subjective. School visits can be invaluable to dispel pre-conceptions or help a family picture themselves in a school, but people gravitate toward or crave the easier route of following rankings.

    School rankings don't measure lifestyle impact

    Parents who blindly follow blanket rankings/ratings may overlook a great "fitting" school in favor of one that a third-party metric says is 10 spots “above” the other school, yet requires a drive across town to attend. In the end, there may not be any marked difference in outcome for their child attending one or the other. But the lifestyle impact could be more negative for the school that's further away.

    One school’s overall scores may be lower because it serves a broader range of backgrounds or has more special needs students, but that doesn't mean your child’s success is reliant on only one school and not another. What your child can achieve and what they score on an exam does NOT have to be the “average” number.

    What to look for instead of rankings

    Using rankings and ratings to be the first or only metric in choosing a school can also serve to negatively suppress positive changes at a school. Instead, families should tour their local school or those near them. Another great indicator of a school fit? Talk to families with children their age who may have older siblings at the school. Reaching out to a school’s parent group or attending local school council (LSC) meetings is also a great way to get an honest scoop on a school.

    Ultimately, the greatest arbiter of student success is parent involvement in their children's lives — way beyond one school over another school, public or private, city or suburbs.



    Grace Lee Sawin

    Grace Lee Sawin is a co-founder of Chicago School GPS. Chicago School GPS helps Chicago families navigate the often confusing world of public and private school searches, from preschool to high school and beyond, so that they can arrive at their school destination, no matter when they begin their journey.


    Photo by Annie Spratt / Unsplash




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