School Rankings: Reading Between the Lines [Corrected]

New Canaan High School is highly ranked on some lists, and doesn't make the cut on others. What do the numbers really mean?

(Editor’s Note:  An earlier version of this piece contained two inaccuracies. Most erroneously, information about graduation rates for the district was wrong. The data quoted was for students with disabilities, a subset of all graduates. New Canaan’s graduation rate for 2009, the last year for which the CT Department of Education provides statistics, was 99.3 percent. Additionally, the first line of the article should have said GreatSchools.org identified the New Canaan school district, and not just the high school, as number two in the $800,000+ median home price category. Patch exceedingly regrets these errors.)

Some have noticedthat GreatSchools.org ranked the New Canaan school district Number Two nationally in the $800,000+ median home price category. It’s difficult to comprehend that anyone believes such a ranking is relevant or accurate.

Any credible evaluation of education performance measures improvement of internal comparative data, not the absolute value of the data. A comparison of absolute values is more likely to reflect demographics than anything else, and this is precisely what’s happening in New Canaan.

Despite the fact that the GreatSchools.org ranking is based on a comparison only to other towns with $800k+ home values, ignoring the demographic details reduces one to being an accomplice in the rankings charade. To understand why this home value comparison is irrelevant, we need to venture no further than New Canaan’s neighbor, Greenwich. The town of Greenwich ranks first in the state in median home value (06830 had a March-May 2011 median home sale price of $2,100,000, whereas 06840 has a median sale price for the same period of $1,087,000). Yet Greenwich schools aren’t competitive in absolute value education comparisons. Why?

Glad you asked. While Greenwich ranks first in median home value, it has a demographically significant population of poor and minority students, unlike New Canaan. Therefore, an education ranking of absolute values, even sorted by home values, is most likely to reflect demographics, not the quality of education. Such a list will be composed of towns with high average home values and demographically insignificant poor and minority populations.

Last year, Greenwich high school reported that 10.9 percent of its students – almost 300 – qualified for free or reduced-price meals. In contrast, New Canaan is the only district in Connecticut not to offer the free/reduced-price meals program. The last year New Canaan had the program was 2005, and then only 16 students qualified.

Greenwich’s population has almost double the percent of children below the poverty line as New Canaan. Similarly, New Canaan’s population is about 2.7 percent black and Hispanic; Greenwich’s population is about 8 percent black and Hispanic. As a percent of the total student population, Greenwich has Greenwich has 10 times as many students who are considered not fluent in English as New Canaan. The percentage of Greenwich students who work 16+ hours per week is more than double New Canaan’s. In each “Need Indicator” category — non-English speakers, Students Eligible for Free/Reduced-Price Meals, students with disabilities, students working 16+ hours/week — Greenwich posts higher percentages of the student population than New Canaan. Think that’s just Greenwich? Darien similarly posts higher numbers than New Canaan in each category as well.

Great test scores often are more indicative of demographics than anything else, and someone who boasts about New Canaan’s great test scores is in reality acknowledging that the town has very low poverty, almost no minorities, and strikingly low “Need Indicator” students. How would Greenwich schools perform if they were working with New Canaan’s population of students? Probably about as well as New Canaan’s schools.

Credible education comparisons usually are derived from internal comparisons, so let’s explore a few.

Last year, the highest CAPT scores in the state belonged to Westport (Staples High School). Greenwich High School, Weston High School, and Staples are the only three top Fairfield County public schools to improve over the last three years. Staples is the only school in the state to break a 292 score twice in the last four years (overall average scaled score). Wilton High School currently has the highest four-year average (291.5) and highest recorded score (292.5 in 2008). New Canaan High School is currently at a four-year low.

For 8th grade CMT scores, Easton, Weston and Wilton are the only schools not to record a decline in any of the past four years. Amistad, the New Haven charter school (98 percent + minority, 57 percent+ eligible for free/reduced-price meals), beat New Canaan last year in percentage of students achieving writing proficiency. Overall, New Canaan’s four year CMT averages are pedestrian for its peer group – higher than other schools in some areas and lower in other areas.

So are New Canaan schools performing well? It depends on how one massages the numbers. And some of those numbers aren’t so great. Of all the better public schools in Fairfield County, NCHS boasts the highest average English class size, higher average class sizes than Darien in every class measured by the state, and higher class sizes than 75 percent of classes at Staples.

An impressive school would be one that succeeds in the face of adversity, not due to a lack of it. And most performance indictors tend to reflect local demographics more than anything else, so celebrating such rankings amounts to celebrating your community’s exclusivity. One must muster an incredible lack of knowledge about how rankings are constructed in order to assign any validity to them, which is precisely why . Rankings are produced to sell publications, not provide helpful information.

All education data was provided by the Connecticut Department of Education.

Steve Veitch June 23, 2011 at 05:05 PM
The plot thickens . . . . It appears that not only isn't Mr. Allen's company registered as a not-for-profit in Connecticut in the state, the Department of Consumer Protection has no record of it being registered as a regular business. Great job fact-checking Patch! What's next, an investment advice article by Bernie Madoff?
NCTeacher June 23, 2011 at 05:15 PM
Really, the Patch should be ashamed of itself. Putting this garbage out there the week of graduation . . . . The ridiculously low grad rate alone should have tipped them off to the fact that this gentleman is bogus. This is why AOL is losing $45 million a quarter on its "Patches". Does the Patch even have an editor?? Amateur hour.
Hank Edwards June 23, 2011 at 05:43 PM
Seems like this Patch network is quite clearly a content farm that exists solely to produce massive amounts of search-engine optimized content so it will show up high in Google rankings, similar to eHow or Experts Exchange, and other similar sites (e.g., a search for “melting pot ballston” returns the Patch article as the fifth result). They do it by paying independent contracts to write quick and dirty articles or just copy content from legitimate sites and tweak it to fool Google. There has been a lot of talk on tech blogs lately about how Google needs to improve its search algorithm to avoid these sites.
Hank Edwards June 23, 2011 at 05:44 PM
Hank Edwards June 23, 2011 at 05:46 PM
11. NC Business Suck


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