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Are Test Scores Everything? What Makes a Great School?

Are Test Scores Everything? What Makes a Great School?

It’s kindergarten registration time and although I no longer have a kinder, I’ve given advice to some new parents who are looking at choosing a school for their up and coming kindergarteners.

I remember what I was like when it came time to pick an elementary school for my tiny little 4-year-old. She was my world and outside of going to preschool a few mornings a week, she was not a part of the big, big world. I had to pick the perfect school – one that would give her everything.

My school search began online where schools were just beginning to post test scores and other information. (Keep in mind this was *cough* about seven years ago.) Being a new mom, I really didn’t know any parents in the area and didn’t really know how to start. I compared test scores but didn’t understand what they meant. So a few schools had A’s, a few B’s and a couple more were under that. I wasn’t sure if I should bother to look at the schools that had average to low test scores. What if my daughter had to go to one of the average schools?

I took my daughter to our neighborhood school for a visit and to enroll. The ladies in the office had very little time for us – gave me the papers to fill out and didn’t have time to answer questions. It was after school and I asked if we could take a tour. They told us we could walk around the school if we wanted to, but they didn’t have time to walk us around. Not being familiar with the school at all, we walked up and down the hallways and eventually found the gym. As we were standing there, the janitor came up and told us we were not allowed in that part of the school and had set off an alarm. He told us to report back to the office and left us standing there. We walked out never to return.Test scores didn’t matter at all at this point.

I turned to the charter school and gifted and talented school in the area. They were the sought after schools to get into and if I was going to give my daughter any chance in life, I was to get her into one of these schools and forget the rest.

My husband and I attended an informational meeting at the charter school. The principal went on and on about their test scores and how every kinder would be reading fluently by Christmas time. Impressive. I guess. This just reinforced over and over to me that they taught to the test in this school. Everything was math and reading oriented. Social studies and science alternated on an occasional schedule, but she promised they were taught at least a few days a month. Art was also squeezed in when they had time, which wasn’t very often.

I know I was supposed to be impressed, but I wasn’t. And then she shared that the kindergarten class only received a 10 minute recess and snack break during their day, adding, “they just want to learn, that they are begging us to come in off the playground.”

The final two clinchers were when the principal said “If you are fortunate enough to become one of our families,” at the end of her speech. I don’t need to be a part of a community where you start out feeling better than the rest. My final clincher was when I noticed a sign in the lunch room that said “We have had __ days of silent lunch.”

Test scores are great, but are they really everything? I worried my kid wouldn’t be allowed to be a kid if she went to that school. No balance, no talking, no running outside. She would automatically get into the college prep junior/high school. But was that really everything? So off the list it went.

My visit to the GT school wasn’t much better. No tours unless you were a confirmed a parent there. Students and parents who were guaranteed ‘in’ got to fill out paperwork in a lounge with coffee and donuts, while prospective parents had to sit in the office at a table with their papers. Strike three. I am not going to put my child in a school were you are categorized when you walk in the door.

I was really frustrated and didn’t want to visit any more schools. That summer we moved to a new neighborhood with a new neighborhood school. It seemed fine – nothing special, nothing negative. Test scores were average. I thought maybe I’d just have to be passive and go to the school that was fine.

Then on August 6th, I found a school that I hadn’t looked at yet. Their test scores weren’t amazing, but they were fine and marked as improving. On paper, this wasn’t THE school. It was fine, but not one of the big dogs. Was it ok to go to a school that didn’t have an outstanding reputation or off the charts test scores?

I dropped by just to check it out. School was less than two weeks away from starting and I figured they were already full and totally uninterested in poor little me and my child. I was wrong. The ladies in the office greeted me, gave me paperwork and explained everything perfectly. They then gave me a tour of the school, where teachers stopped and introduced themselves. I fell in love with it and could see my daughter felt comfortable. She got in and we instantly became a part of the community.

My daughter is now a fifth grader in a school who works hard for the test scores and to improve each year. But test scores aren’t everything. Well-rounded, confident and gracious students are also on their goal list. The teachers are outstanding. The building well maintained. The community very involved.

Sure, we have our problems, but nothing is perfect.

Now when I talk with new parents and prospective families and I hear them say the charter and GT schools are on the top of their list and then if they don’t get into those, they aren’t sure what they will do.

Are test scores really the only deciding factor to make a school attractive?

Are test scores and the words ‘charter’ and ‘GT’ really at the top of your list? Do they really give the big advantage?

I understand that going to public school gives the impression that your family isn’t as important or as affluent as those in private schools or charter schools. Does it really matter at the end of the school day if your child attends a regular public school or a top rated school? My kids are learning, growing and advancing and have a lot of opportunities at a “regular” public school.

Some schools are better and some are worse, but you have to get inside of them and listen to what you feel. Don’t just base everything on a test score.

What qualities of a school did or do you look at when choosing it for your child? Do you look at grades, test scores, programs, opportunities, community, inviting atmosphere, retained teachers and your instinct? What makes a school a good school?


Susan Wells
Author: Susan Wells

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  1. Wow, great, timely post and something I’ve been thinking about a lot. Our school is new and test scores were in the tank. I’ll admit I freaked out but after taking numerous factors into consideration (including an insider look from the principal), I realized there is so much more out there.

  2. Great post, Susan!

    We chose a charter in our area because of what you described. (They don’t “teach to the test,” yet everyone is excelling there in a well-rounded education. All the extras AND the academics are a plus for us!) Every school is different, regardless of their “label.” I’m glad you found the right one for your daughter!

  3. Thanks JoAnn – I thought of you when I was writing this. I know you are in a great charter school that doesn’t teach to the test. I wish we all focused more on what lies inside the building than the labels attached to them.

  4. We chose the program for the high quality teachers, awesome communication throughout the building, art-integration (90 minutes per day), and their teaching philosophy. Test scores have little significance to me.

  5. I guess I did choose it based on awards and test scores. My child is attending Rolling Hills Elementary (excellent school) because it is luckily by our house. However, she got the opportunity to test for the Challenge School (#2 in state, IB school) and got in! So I am removing her from a great school by our home to a better rated school 30 min away.

  6. A caring and nurturing school community with teachers and staff then genuinely care. I want my child to enjoy school.

  7. Test scores only show one thing: That the school is good at getting kids to pass standardized tests.

  8. We’ve submitted a school of choice to the alternate school in our neighborhood. Luckily, the program really fits our daughters style of learning. Our tour was fantastic, any teacher that could stopped what they were doing to say hello, parents volunteering took a moment to joke around with us, and, one teacher even helped me out with a random dead car battery in the parking lot.
    Just checking out the school made me feel like we belonged and would have a fantastic school and staff, with an accelerated curriculum, for all three of our kids to attend. We’ve toured several schools, but this one takes the cake!

  9. As an educator I ask that you keep in mind that often times part of a school’s score is how much they improve their test scores. A difficult thing for already high achieving schools to do!

  10. I don’t want a school/teacher that teaches to pass a test but rather to educate for the long term. We choose are school because of the sense of community and how they take advantage of their location to integrate nature into their teaching. Want to learn the science of flowers: go outside and study the flowers. PE: Run the trails. Art: draw what you see. Even taking it further to build an outdoor classroom.

  11. as an early childhood specialist, administrator, teacher, and a parent of 2 young children-
    I suggest you ask:
    how is the school developing life long learners who inquire and strive to answer their questions? Are the children developing all the modalities or focused on math and reading/ Is the curriculum cross curricular or is math from 9-9:45? Is your child learning how to memorize formulas, or how to be a life long problem solver?

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