by Meilin Obinata
One day I found an article about the way Niche ranks Tri-Valley schools. I was pleased with myself for generously sharing it with my colleagues. Wasn’t I such a nice co-worker? To my surprise, one of them challenged me! He asked me if Niche just used “user reviews.” It never occurred to me that Niche would essentially judge high schools and make pronouncements about them - without substantial research and data. Well, so, how do they make these rankings anyways?
In the hopes of defending my position, I started actually reading their own explanation of their methodology. The largest section, Academics Grade, 60%, comes from a mixture of “state assessment proficiency, SAT/ACT scores, and survey responses on academics from students and parents.” Reading this made me wonder, well, how much of that Academics Grade comes from self-reported data?
ACADEMICS GRADE (60% of OVERALL RANKING) - BREAKING IT DOWN
So I looked at the methodology for that “Academics Grade.” 27.5% of that Academics Grade comes from the Composite SAT/ACT score - which is self-reported by Niche users. And 22.5% of the Academics Grade comes from Top Colleges Score, which Niche describes as “Average score of colleges that students are most interested in or go on to attend, based on Niche Best Colleges ranking.” The source for that: also Niche users. 10% of that Academics Grade comes from the Parent/Student Surveys on Academics, which Niche describes as “Niche survey responses scored on a 1-5 scale regarding the academics at the school.”
SELF-REPORTED USER DATA = MAJORITY OF ACADEMICS GRADE
So, now we have 27.5%, plus 22.5% and 10% to get 60% of the Academics Grade - from Niche user self-reporting. Sounds like my co-worker was right to be skeptical. What about the rest of the Academics Grade?
GOVERNMENT RESEARCH DATA = 40% OF ACADEMICS GRADE
The remainder of the Academics Grade, 40%, comes from a mixture of US Department of Education, Civil Rights Data Collection and the National Center for Education Statistics. The Civil Rights Data Collection comes from the US Department of Education. And the National Center for Education Statistics is responsible for being non-partisan and independent of the US Department of Education and also part of it. For a normal person like me, it would seem easiest to say that 40% of the Academics Grade comes from various sources within the US Department of Education.
I am OK with the idea of having 40% of this “Academics Grade” factor come from government surveys - that feels solid and credible.
Something to note, however, is that Niche only assigns 5% of the Academics Grade comes from the Student/Teacher Ratio factor, as well as 5% for percentage of students who pass AP tests, and yet another only 5% for the percentage of students who take at least one AP course. 15% goes towards the factor called “State Assessment Proficiency” which Niche describes as the “percentage of students at or above proficiency levels on state assessments...”
People who are deciding where to raise their families are scrutinizing locations based on school district performance; and for those people, likely they will prefer to live in the schools that will offer their children the resources which match their needs best.
So only 15% of the Academics Grade comes from factors which reflect high performance on the part of students; something to keep in mind if you are looking for schools that foster a college-going culture.
NON-ACADEMIC FACTORS: 40%
So, what about the other 40%, the remainder of Niche’s overall ranking?
Diversity, Teacher’s Grade, and Overall Experience make up 30% of the remainder. The last 10% come from measurements of Health & Safety, Sports, Facilities and Extracurriculars, each making up 2.5% of the total score. Something that surprised me was that Health & Safety represented only 2.5%, since most parents prioritize the safety of their children above everything else!
60% of this factor comes from the US DoE’s determination of ethnic diversity; 25% of this comes from Niche surveys regarding culture and diversity. 10% of this score comes from economic disadvantage. Last is gender diversity, at 5% of this score.
Parent / Student Overall Experience represents 10% of the total Niche score and comes from survey data, i.e., self-reported.
Teacher’s Grade constitutes 10% of the total Niche score. The way Niche describes the factors considered gets a bit confusing since 30% of that score comes from the “Academics” Grade - which already constitutes 60% of the overall Niche score of a high school. 10% of the Teacher’s Grade comes from self-reported data from parents and students. The remainder of the Teacher’s Grade is a mixture of government data, from sources I previously described above - US DOE, NCES, Civil Rights Data Collection, etc.
Now that we’ve looked at how Niche rates your high school, think about what YOU like best about your high school? Is it the teachers? Friendships? Sports? Safety? If you want to look at data, I personally like finding consistent sources, such as the California Department of Education and going directly for the information.
For example, Amador Valley High School’s profile on California School Dashboard (one of the resources of the California Department of Education) shows that 97.7% of all AVHS students successfully finish high school, which is considered among the highest performance levels for a school. AVHS also posts a profile to its official website. As of the 2016-17 school year, 95% of its students continue to some form of college; 71% progress to a your-year and 24% to a two-year. This is likely the kind of gritty, in-the-trenches information which many families want (and may even be seeking as they decide where to settle down!).
As food for thought, consider that the National Association of Realtors’ Code of Ethics recommends realtors “Let objective (emphasis mine) information, not subjective information, be the guide” as its FIRST piece of advice for its membership to provide equal service to clients, when distributing information about school districts.
It is dangerous to completely rely on a ranking system if you do not understand their methods. However, there is a place for platforms like Niche. Instead of treating them as if they are the end-all be-all, you can certainly use them as a jumping off point. Make no mistake though, there is no substitute for doing your OWN research and seeing the data for yourself. Then you can mix and match the criteria most important for your family to make the BEST decision.