Mercer Island High School: Rankings, Ratings & Impacts of Opting Out

May 16, 2016 | by Erin Sirianni

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Students testing
US News & World Report came out with its latest annual ranking of best high schools in the nation, and this year, Mercer Island High School (MIHS) ranked 8th out of 477 high schools in the state of Washington – two spots higher than our ranking at 10th last year.

Clearly, we’re moving up in the world. Or are we?, on the other hand, dropped MIHS’s rating from a 10 to a 7 this year – from the above average category to the average – though each of Mercer Island’s elementary schools and the middle school still earn a perfect 10 rating.

Confused?  So was I.

US News Ranking 2016 (1)What’s going on here?
MIHS’s drop in the GreatSchools rating is surprising; however, it’s also misleading.  MIHS continues to be an excellent school, as US News highlights.  But US News and GreatSchools use different methodologies for evaluating student performance.

US News bases its ranking on a variety of methodologies (graduation rate, standardized test scores, and AP exam participation and scores). GreatSchools bases its ranking exclusively on standardized test scores, and specifically scores from Smarter Balanced Assessments (SBA or SBAC) testing.

I reached out to Mercer Island School District (MISD) administration to learn more about the ratings system, and Jennifer Wright, Executive Director of Learning and Technology Services, provided some insight on the SBAC scores and impacts on ratings.

“While our scores for grades 3-8 were excellent and some of the best in the state, our high opt-out rate at the high school meant those scores were very low as every student who didn’t take the exam was counted as a zero,” Wright shared in an email.

As Wright illuminates, the drop in MIHS’s test scores, and subsequently its drop in the GreatSchools rating, had nothing to do with student aptitude but rather student participation.

As I investigated further, other Seattle and Eastside-area schools also had a high opt-out rate last year.  Bellevue High School, which ranked #4 of Washington State schools by US News, had their GreatSchools rating drop from a 10 to a 2.  Newport Senior High School, ranked #2 of Washington state schools by US News, is rated by GreatSchools as a 3.

Who cares about the GreatSchools rating anyway?
If you have kids and bought a home recently, you probably know that it’s a simple but powerful metric for narrowing down neighborhoods in your home search. Sure, most home buyers have a lot of other criteria for choosing a neighborhood, but the quality of schools is among many families’ most important criteria.

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction website for Washington State schools is the best website to learn about local school districts, but GreatSchools is simpler and faster.

In fact, Redfin integrates the GreatSchools rating into their popular search tool, so that for any home that you look at within your search, you can simply scroll down to see the local schools’ GreatSchools ranking.  It can be a “make-or-break” for some buyers – a poor GreatSchools rating might make the difference of whether or not they even step into a home on the market.

Yet now a little student rebellion might make the GreatSchools ratings a shaky metric at best – unless GreatSchools changes their algorithms or methodology.

So what’s up with opting out?
You might be wondering why students and families are opting out of standardized testing at all, and my best answer for that is – it’s complicated.  Standardized testing appears to be a necessary aspect of the national public school system, and federal funding may even be withheld from schools that do not have 95% student participation.

Losing more money is a huge concern for the MISD administration, as our district already ranks near the bottom of all state districts (282 of 295) for state and federal funding.

The GreatSchools rating drop shows that a lot of capable Mercer Island students are opting out of the testing, and yet, opting out of the testing may be necessary for some families and students for various reasons, including students who experience severe testing anxiety.

If you really want to dig into it, ParentMap published this helpful article and Q&A, “Standardized Testing: Should We Opt In or Opt Out?” and Seattle Weekly also weighed in on the debate about the local grassroots movement surrounding standardized testing.

In the meantime, 10th and 11th graders at MIHS will have SBAC testing this week.  Their participation – which I heard was hotly debated by students on a class Facebook page – will determine whether MIHS’s GreatsSchools rating rebounds. But we’ll have to wait until the data refreshes to find out.

What do you think about the rankings, ratings, and the opt-out debate?  Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.