Mention the name of a town to someone and oftentimes you will hear a response communicating whether or not the schools in that town are good. The question then becomes how can a community define good? How can a school’s overall quality be determined? One way is through school rankings. School rankings consider test scores, college readiness, graduation rates, attendance, availability of advanced courses and equity. While test scores are used to determine eligibility for federal funding, they also convey something more: expectations.
School Digger released their latest school rankings, and as can be expected parents in our community are expressing their concern. These rankings are based on the results of NH SAS (Statewide Assessment System) scores for math, reading and science. These rankings are out of 211 elementary schools, 125 middle schools, and 84 high schools.
These data illustrate a considerable decline in ranking amongst all of the SAU16 elementary schools since 2019, while our middle and high school have had no change. What is alarming and should be highlighted are the average test scores of our schools. The average score for the top 10 schools in each category (elementary, middle and high school), was 96.08% for the top 10 elementary schools, 98.4% for the top 10 middle schools, and 92.28% for the top 10 high schools. The scores for all of our schools are far below these averages, and quite frankly, many of our average scores are markedly low. It should be noted that in schools with substantially smaller populations, such as Newfields or East Kingston, large swings can be attributed to the smaller sample size. However, our larger schools are insulated from such swings due to a larger sample size, meaning opt-outs have negligible impact.
Of course rankings and test scores are not the only factor that determines how well schools are doing, or how well are kids are learning. And a single ranking from one source cannot provide a complete picture about a school district. We all know this. However, we cannot ignore them because they do have an impact on our communities. Test scores often determine whether or not a school can access federal funding or grants. They can influence the quality of staff and teachers that are drawn to work in a school district. They also have an impact on home prices and enrollment in our schools. Like it or not, prospective families look at these rankings when determining where to purchase a home. Personally we did this when we moved to Exeter 16 years ago. We were not tied to a certain town or school, but knew we wanted to be in southern New Hampshire. We looked at houses in communities that were ranked in the top 10 for both elementary and high schools. And at that time, Exeter fit the bill. We have to be cognizant that when these rankings and average test scores start to decline, families will leave. It is already happening. Since 2018 enrollment has dropped 20.4% at CMS, 9.2% at EHS, and an average of 10.5% across all elementary schools. So although rankings should not be the sole determination of school quality, in many ways they have significant impact.
What do we do with this data? Have you ever been driving and had your “check engine” light come on? You may think, my car still works so why is the light on? That light is an indicator to let you know that something is wrong with your car, but to find out you have to open up the hood to search for the problem. These rankings and test scores are our schools “check engine” light. Although they don’t tell us everything, we can’t ignore them. We need to “open up the hood” to figure out why our rankings and average test scores are not higher. Only then can we find solutions to improve the academic rigor and achievement in our schools.