Can Your Kid's School Pass This Quality Test? If you want to make sure your children get the best possible education, you will have to do your homework. Start here.
(MONEY Magazine) – At a time when the news is full of alarming reports of the crisis in U.S. education, how do you know whether your kid's school is doing the job? All parents want their children to get the best education possible -- in MONEY's poll on the American dream, providing solid schooling through grade 12 outranked every other goal except a happy home life. But your child's report card won't tell you anything about the quality of the instruction he or she is receiving, and the occasional parent-teacher conferences give only a limited view. MONEY's School Aptitude Test is a first, a comprehensive questionnaire that allows you to grade a school -- public or private, elementary or high school. Whether you are sizing up neighborhoods in preparation for a move or simply want the lowdown on your local school, the MONEY SAT can help you find out whether a school has what it takes to give children a love of learning and the tools to excel.
If you don't like what the test tells you about your child's current school, you can work to remedy the problems, either by getting involved directly (through the PTA, for example) or by lobbying local officials. And you may have other options, apart from moving or paying for private education (which can cost from $1,250 to $11,864 a year). Recognizing that having to compete for students is a powerful incentive to improve quality, eight states have begun to permit parents to choose from a number of different institutions, and 15 to 20 more are considering such laws. Many education specialists and politicians believe parental-choice systems will spread across the country. ''Choice is fast becoming the education reform of the '90s,'' says Jeanne Allen, an education policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation. ''It is being hailed by people of all political, social and economic stripes.'' Like the Scholastic Aptitude Test that college-bound high school students take, the MONEY SAT is divided into two sections: verbal, which asks for qualitative answers; and math, which is based on statistical data (and applies only to high schools). The total score does not tell you as much about a school as the answers themselves. And your ultimate decision may well be based on personal factors. You must have a realistic sense of your child's strengths and weaknesses to know what kind of atmosphere will best suit him or her. Whenever you must change schools, try to arrange a farewell interview with people who know your child well -- the principal, a teacher or two, or the guidance counselor. They can provide insights that you can pass on to the new teachers. MONEY devised this test after extensive research and consultations with experts on school quality, including John E. Chubb, senior fellow in the governmental studies program at the Brookings Institution, and Terry M. Moe, professor of political science at Stanford University. Chubb and Moe wrote Politics, Markets, and America's Schools (the Brookings Institution, 1990; $28.95), an exhaustive statistical study of the characteristics that set successful schools apart from troubled ones. Help also came from Allan Shedlin Jr., former principal of the Midtown Ethical Culture School, a New York City independent school, and now executive director of the Elementary School Center, a nonprofit research and study group; Robert Hochstein, assistant to the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching; and Paul Abramson, president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, a firm that helps school districts design and improve schools. To complete this exam, you will need a fair bit of cooperation from administrators and faculty. If they are reluctant to answer questions or give you access, you should start looking for another school.
VERBAL Ask these questions of the appropriate parties. Some answers will be based strictly on the information the person provides. In other instances, you will be asked to rate the response. That means you must consider not only the information in the answer but such subjective factors as the respondent's enthusiasm and sincerity and, perhaps most important, whether the answer conforms with your views.
I. Questions to ask the principal
1. What is the school's educational philosophy? The principal should be able to articulate a clear and convincing vision of the school's values and goals. Rate the response: A. Excellent B. Good C. Poor
2. Do you encourage -- and accept -- suggestions from teachers on curriculum and instruction methods? A good principal will meet with teachers regularly and incorporate their ideas into the curriculum. Cross-check the answer with teachers. Rate the response: A. Excellent B. Good C. Poor
3. How would you rate your teaching staff? A good principal will generally have a high opinion of his teachers, while a weak principal might complain that higher authorities have saddled him with a mediocre staff. Rate the response: A. Excellent B. Good C. Poor
4. How do you keep parents informed about what's going on at school? Along with formal parent-teacher conferences, good schools will have extras like a newsletter for parents or special events that encourage parental involvement. Rate the response: A. Excellent B. Good C. Poor
5. How do you handle complaints from parents? At a good school, there will be an effective system in place for hearing and responding to parents' concerns. Rate the response: A. Excellent B. Good C. Poor
6. Do higher officials intervene in the affairs of the school? Principals at effective schools generally are left alone by the bureaucracy above them. A principal who complains of excessive interference is probably not doing a good job. Rate the response: A. Excellent B. Good C. Poor
7. How many extracurricular activities does the school offer? At a minimum, elementary schools should have team sports and put on plays or holiday pageants; high schools should have a newspaper, yearbook, music club and drama society. A. Wide selection B. Basic selection C. Few or none
8. Do you still teach? Good principals generally try to maintain their teaching skills, either by conducting a regular class or filling in frequently. At larger schools, a principal might express the desire to teach but not have the time. Rate the response: A. Excellent B. Good C. Poor
9. How many sports programs does the school offer? A good high school will offer more than just varsity football, basketball and baseball -- there should be organized intramural competition as well. Larger schools should offer as many as 40 different sports programs. And even elementary schools should have some organized activities. A. Extensive programs B. Some programs C. Few or none
II. Questions to ask teachers Try to speak to at least two teachers, and base your answers on their combined responses.
10. How much power do you have to determine the curriculum in the classes you teach? At better schools, teachers tend to be heavily involved in such decisions. A. Considerable B. Some C. Little
11. | Are you free to choose any books you like for your classes? See previous question. A. Free to choose B. Some discretion C. Books are imposed
12. How much of your time is taken up with administrative chores and nonteaching tasks like monitoring lunchrooms? A. None B. Less than one hour a day C. More than one hour a day
13. How often are your classes interrupted by kids acting up or other disruptions? A good teacher can control a class without resorting to drastic measures. Rate the response: A. Excellent B. Good C. Poor
14. Are the school's rules and regulations clear and consistently enforced? Students and teachers should know what is expected of them; a teacher will have an easier time if disciplinary standards are uniform throughout the school. Rate the response: A. Excellent B. Good C. Poor
15. How often do you meet with fellow teachers, either formally or informally, to discuss school matters? A. Weekly B. Monthly C. Now and then
16. In your classes, are you able to allow for differences in children's rates of development? At effective schools, students are not sorted into classes according to their abilities. Good teachers, however, acknowledge such differences and work with individual students or small groups so that slower students are not left out. Rate the response: A. Excellent B. Good C. Poor
17. How much information do report cards convey? The best will have written comments and detailed grades; for example, in math, there might be separate grades for conceptual and computational skills. A. A good deal B. An adequate amount C. Minimal
18. How much homework do students get each night? More is not necessarily better; overburdened students do not perform well. And of course, the workload should increase in higher grades. Rate the response: A. Excellent B. Good C. Poor
19. Do you understand the school's philosophical aim and approve of it? Teachers should know the principal's vision and either accept it or make a cogent argument against it. Take off points if you sense a deep conflict between the principal's vision and that of teachers. Rate the response: A. Excellent B. Good C. Poor
20. Would you be able to take over any of your colleagues' classes? Would they be able to stand in for you? English teachers can't be expected to run a math class, but teachers in good schools tend to be more knowledgeable about one another's classes. Rate the response: A. Excellent B. Good C. Poor
III. Questions to ask students Try to speak to at least three kids, and base your answers on their combined responses. Children as young as five years old can provide useful information.
21. How tough are your classes? Students should feel challenged but not overwhelmed. A. Challenging B. Mixed C. Much too hard or easy
22. Can you count on getting about the same amount of homework each night? Bad schools will have inconsistent homework requirements: a lot one night and none for two or three nights. A. Yes B. Usually C. No
23. How would you describe school rules -- fair or unfair? Arbitrary discipline is a sign of an ill-run school. A. Very fair B. Reasonably fair C. Unfair
24. How often do teachers praise your work? Positive feedback builds confidence. Even kids who don't excel should be encouraged when they do things right. A. Frequently B. Sometimes C. Never
25. Do your teachers listen to you when you have problems or complaints? A. Always B. Sometimes C. Never
26. How would you describe the student government (elementary schools may have class officers)? Does it fairly represent the student body, or is it dominated by cliques or marred by discrimination? A. Open, fair B. Somewhat open C. Closed, cliquish
III. Questions to ask a PTA representative or other parent who is actively involved in the school
27. Public schools only: How strong is community support for local schools? Check to see if there have been any recent votes on school funding. Also, a town with a high proportion of single and older people might be stingier about public education than a town full of young families. A. Very strong B. Moderately strong C. Weak
28. Private schools only: Are parents pressured to make contributions (above tuition) or to assist with fund raising? * You may not be comfortable with a school that is regularly passing the hat. A. Little pressure B. Some pressure C. Constant pressure
29. What is the current state of relations between the administration and the teaching staff? Have teachers gone on strike in the past 10 years? Was the strike resolved to everyone's satisfaction? Are any confrontations looming on the horizon? Rate the response: A. Excellent B. Good C. Poor
30. How accessible are teachers? In addition to the standard twice-yearly parent-teacher conferences, parents should be able to reach teachers by phone before school and in the evening to discuss special problems. A. Very accessible B. Fairly accessible C. Not accessible
31. Does the school encourage parental involvement? Parents who have the time might be included in activities such as field trips. A good school will also occasionally call on a parent's special knowledge and skills to help teach certain subjects. A. Encourages involvement B. Is neutral C. Discourages involvement
32. What percentage of parents are active in the PTA? A. 25% or more B. 10% to 25% C. Less than 10%
33. How much emphasis does the school place on sports? You want to be sure that the school does not devote a lot of money and administrative attention to sports while neglecting other needs. Rate the response: A. Excellent B. Good C. Poor
IV. Questions to ask a school guidance counselor
34. What special educational assistance does the school offer? A school should have, at minimum, teachers who are able to help children with speech problems or with mild learning disabilities while not separating them from their peers. A. Extensive programs B. Some programs C. Few or no programs
35. High schools only: Do you have programs to deal with drug and alcohol abuse? Even top-quality school districts are now encountering these problems, so a good school will have counseling programs. A. Fully staffed programs B. Minimal counseling C. None
36. Elementary and junior high schools only: Are there any special programs for latchkey kids? These programs, which provide supervision for kids after school, are important for families with two working parents. A. Extensive programs B. Some programs C. No programs
37. Does the school have community service programs? Work such as recycling, tutoring fellow students or assisting the elderly and handicapped helps to round out a youngster's education and confers a sense of responsibility. Some good schools make such work mandatory and offer grade points for it. A. Strong community service programs B. Some community service programs C. None
V. Evaluating the facilities Answers should be based on your own inspection of the school and its surrounding neighborhood.
38. Convenience Getting to and from school should not be an ordeal; if commuting will take longer than 45 minutes each way, look for something closer to home. Is there good transportation for students who stay late? A. Excellent B. Good C. Poor
39. Setting The neighborhood surrounding the school should be clean and safe. A. Excellent B. Good C. Poor
40. Classrooms Clean, well-maintained rooms with windows and good lighting are a must; in elementary schools, classroom walls should be painted in pleasing colors. A. Excellent B. Good C. Poor
41. Classroom atmosphere Do the teachers seem enthusiastic? Do the children appear happy and involved? A. Excellent B. Good C. Poor
42. Hallways and bathrooms Hallways should have adequate lighting, little or no graffiti, no broken windows. Having student trophies and awards on display is a morale booster. Bathrooms should be clean and in working order. A. Excellent B. Good C. Poor
43. Library The spiritual heart of the school, it should be a bright, busy place, with at least 10 books for each child in the student body, preferably 8,000 or more. A. Excellent B. Good C. Poor
44. Gym There should be room for several activities at the same time. Equipment should be neatly stored when not in use. Secondary schools should have locker rooms with showers. A. Excellent B. Good C. Poor
45. Outdoor recreation facilities Everyone should be able to play outdoors. Playing areas for young children should be separated from other fields. A. Excellent B. Good C. Poor
46. Specialty rooms There should be an art room with a kiln, a music room with a piano, a performance room or an auditorium with a stage. A. Excellent B. Good C. Poor
47. Computer facilities From kindergarten on, there should be at least one computer in each classroom, and junior highs and high schools should have easily accessible computer labs. A. Excellent B. Good C. Poor
SCORING INSTRUCTIONS. On questions 1 to 37, give 20 points for every A, 10 points for every B, zero for every C. On questions 38 to 47, A=10 points, B=5 points, C=0. A perfect score is 800.
This portion applies only to high schools. You should be able to gather the necessary information from school administrators. When the answer is in the form of a percentage (25%, for example), simply add or subtract the number (25) from the running total.
1. Take the average Scholastic Aptitude Test score (verbal plus math) of seniors at the school last year and divide by two. (If the students take the American College Test -- ACT -- instead, multiply the combined average by 16.6 and add 200.)
2. Subtract the following numbers from the total: A. The percentage of seniors who did not take the test B. The average class size C. The number of students per teacher schoolwide D. The number of students per guidance counselor E. The percentage of students who drop out F. The number of students suspended for disciplinary reasons last year G. The number of students who were not promoted to the next grade last year
3. Add the following numbers to the result of step 2: A. The percentage of seniors who graduate B. The percentage of seniors who go on to four-year colleges C. The percentage of the students enrolled who are taking calculus or other advanced math courses D. The percentage of students who took advanced-placement courses last year E. The number of National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test semifinalists and finalists F. The percentage of the student body enrolled in college preparatory courses, rather than general or vocational studies G. The percentage of teachers who have master's degrees or doctorates
Math score: GRAND TOTAL:
EVALUATING THE RESULTS. High schools that score between 1,400 and 1,600 are at the head of the class; those between 1,200 and 1,000 are solid; 1,000 and 1,200 need improvement; below 1,000 should be avoided. Elementary schools: 700 to 800, head of the class; 600 to 700, solid; 500 to 600, need improvement; below 500, avoid.