Insideschools Unveils New Tool to Navigate High School Choices

| June 29, 2012 4:00 AM

Andrew White, director of the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School, at the June 28 announcement of Inside Stats from Insideschools.org. Photo by Kasia Broussalian.

Jacquie Wayans was confused when she saw her daughter’s class schedule for her senior year at the High School of Fashion Industries. It didn’t include any math. When Wayans spoke to the guidance counselor, she learned that the school had only just started offering a four-year, college preparatory math program. Her daughter wasn’t eligible because she had not started on that track. Wayans was surprised because the school had received an “A” rating on its Department of Education progress report.

“I just assumed it was there,” said Wayans, who works for Insideschools.org. “The information is on the report card, but it’s not easy to find.”

Her daughter will now have to take a remediation math course in college to make up for the missed class.

Wayans shared this story yesterday at a panel hosted by Insideschools.org, a project of the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School. The organization’s leaders unveiled Inside Stats, a model they created to help students and parents better navigate the high school choice process. Inside Stats is a scorecard that compiles data from the city and state education departments and presents it in a user-friendly way.

The New York City Department of Education publishes its own high school directory each fall that provides profiles of each school. These profiles include data such as graduation rates and progress report grades. However, Insideschools learned through its research that many parents and students found the information insufficient or confusing. For example, safety was a top concern for both groups but the Department of Education made no mention of safety statistics in its school profiles. Students and parents also tended to look at the progress report grades to judge the quality of the school, but they had little understanding of how the grades were determined or what they really meant.

“Most parents didn’t understand what it was telling them, if it showed progress from year to year,” said Andrew White, director of the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School, during the panel. “We started to wonder what it would take to provide a more holisitic and consumer-friendly tool to supply people with the information they need about public high schools.”

Clara Hemphill, founder of Insideschools.org, said she hoped that Inside Stats will help to clear up the confusion surrounding “themed” schools. Photo by Kasia Broussalian.

Insideschools started working on the new scorecard model in March 2011. Staff members analyzed the information that was currently provided by the Department of Education. They then met with focus groups of middle school and high school students and parents to find out what information was important to them. What has resulted is a four-page profile of each school that attempts to provide a more comprehensive picture of each institution.

Rather than focus on progress report grades, which are based largely on student test scores, Insideschools looked to highlight other indicators of quality, such as whether or not the school offers a college-preparatory curriculum. They also broke some traditional measures down to make them more meaningful. For example, the scorecard provides the over-all graduation rate for each school but then narrows it down into the graduation rates for specific sub-groups such as English Language Learners or Special Ed students, information that may be vital to students with these needs.

Clara Hemphill, founder of Insideschools, also hopes that Inside Stats will help to clear up some of the misconceptions surrounding “themed” schools. Students often choose a high school that has a theme like law, health or journalism because they are interested in a specific career. However, these schools often have only a limited number of courses in the specialization, which can leave students frustrated by their choice.

“Sometimes the high school directory sort of overstates what is going on at these schools,” Hemphill said. “They will say they have 12 law courses when really they only have one. It’s sort of aspirational.”

To that end, Inside Stats also evaluates how closely a school adheres to the theme in its name.

Martin Kurzweil is the senior executive director of the Department of Education’s Office of Research, Accountability and Data. During the panel he noted that the Inside Stats model did a good job of conveying important data in a narrative form, which makes it easier for many people to understand. He did, however, see room for improvement.

“One thing that would be helpful is providing more context for these results,” Kurzweil said. “Is a nine percent dropout rate a good rate or a bad rate? It’s hard to understand without a comparator.”

Kurzweil also suggested that the scorecard distinguish more clearly which information is the most important so that the students who use it don’t base their choice on a less-important data factor.

Hemphill said that the model is still undergoing changes. It most likely will not be available to the public for another six months, just in time for next year’s round of high school choice applications.

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