What to make of online school reviews...

What is the best school in Virginia Beach?  That is a difficult question to answer.  It is not as black and white as one would think.  With the abundance of online ratings metrics it should be as simple as looking at the school in the number one position.... but it isn't that easy.  Schools are like children, every parent thinks their kid (school) is the best.  If you ask me which elementary school in Virginia Beach is the best, I will tell you Alanton.  Why, well because I have had 3 children go to school there and we have had an outstanding experience.  To an outsider though the online rating says that Alanton is only a 6 and the school down the street is a 10.  Well that's a no brainer, right.....  So I did a little digging to find out why there is such a discrepancy between a families personal experience and the online ratings.  Here is what I found.

Single data point used:  The website greatschools.org, which is one of the most visited school review websites uses as much data as they can get from school systems.  In our case, Virginia only gives them one test score that they then compare with every other school in the state.  They then assign score based on how each school compares.  So let's stick with our elementary school example.  So what do they use to evaluate our elementary schools?  The SOL or Standards of Learning test that is administered at the end of each school year.  So here is the problem with this.  Anyone who has endured SOL's knows that they don't start taking them until 3rd grade.  So right there you have Kindergarten, 1st and 2nd grade not being evaluated for the online school rankings.  That is essentially half the school.  Other school states provide information on how much improvement students are making from one year to the next as well in high school they provide a rating of how prepared they are for college.  With those two additional data points you get a much better reflection of how the school is doing but in Virginia we don't have that luxury.  

Academy's:  Virginia Beach has an amazing academy program for its gifted and high achieving students.  Programs are offered at a number of high schools in addition to the normal zoned students.  Programs include programs such as the Legal Studies Academy at First Colonial and the Math and Science Academy at Ocean Lakes.  Not coincidentally the academy schools are ranked as some of the top schools in the city.  The reason being that they bring in the brightest and the smartest kids from around the city who have high test scores which increase the schools average.  This artificially increases the rating for the school because essentially it is two separate student bodies and curriculum's and they should be graded separately.  

Out of zone busing:  Some of the schools bus students in from under performing schools.  In my eyes this is a good thing.  It brings together a diverse group of students who can share their different perspectives with each other in the classroom.  However from a school rating perspective it lowers the schools overall score.  The reason goes back to the single test score that dictates a schools ranking.  On average the students coming from under performing schools don't perform as well on the SOL's which brings down the overall average of the school.  Does this mean that the school down the street that is made up of only people that live within a certain boundary is a better school because they have higher test scores?  Absolutely not.  

Summary:  I always tell clients to take the school ratings with a grain of salt and only use it as a part of your evaluation.  Here are some additional ways to evaluate the quality of a school.  

Additional ways to evaluate a school:

  1. Visit the school:  I always suggest you schedule an appointment with the Principal and see the classrooms.  You can tell a lot by just being in the school when class is in session.  Are the kids excited to be there.  More importantly are the teachers and office staff excited to be there.
  2. Talk to other parents:  If you have other friends in the area, ask them what they think.  If you don't have anybody to ask and you have a specific school you are wondering about, ask us.  We can find you a first hand perspective.
  3. Look at the PTA:  I like to say that a school is only as good as its parents.  Good students come from involved parents and what better way to figure that out than to look at the PTA.  How active are they?  
If you ever have any questions about local schools we would be happy to talk with you about it.  Our schools are one of our biggest assets so we are very proud of the education that they provide.
Best Regards,
Eric & Jennifer Ziemer

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