Sloane: Giving Parents Information Helps Them Choose the Best Schools for Their Kids. How 3 Data-Sharing Tools Are Working for NY Families

Underserved families have a fundamental civil right to make an informed choice about where their children should attend high school. Information that provides objective measures of high schools’ performance — how they stack up in successfully preparing students for completing college, for example — is essential in helping those who would benefit from greater transparency, principally the underserved, to weigh the many factors that are important to school choice.

We know that the surest path out of poverty is a college degree, and we know data exist about which high schools are doing well at helping poor kids achieve that goal. Yet in many cities and states, data relevant to college readiness and success are not made available to help those who need it most, namely poor families, make smart high school choices.

We at the Heckscher Foundation for Children decided to do something about this in New York City, where our funding is largely focused and where there is districtwide high school choice, by investing in the development of digital tools that make crucial school-related information widely available. These solutions, examples of what we call targeted problem-solving, address systemic inequities and level the playing field where one decision — which high school to attend — has significant consequences for low-income students.

We funded three projects that look at different measures of high school performance in preparing students for college readiness and success: graduation rates, financial aid application completion and college completion rates linked back to the high school level.

To better understand how information can help students access higher-performing high schools, we first funded the creation of the NYC High School Application Guide, a free online tool and mobile app that helps students identify high schools with strong graduation rates from among the 750 programs and more than 440 high schools in the district. At the time we developed the Guide, students and families were being directed to a published volume of more than 400 pages put out by the city Department of Education or to a web source that did not allow for searching of schools by criteria important to individual students.

In a randomized controlled trial conducted at the time the Guide was introduced, we showed that students who used it were more likely to receive their first-choice high school and less likely to match to a school with a graduation rate below 70 percent. Since our funding began, several new tools have been created, and experts in this area have credited our Guide as the impetus for the development of these improved tools.

Next, we looked at financial aid application completion rates. Consider that 90 percent of high school seniors who complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid — FAFSA — go on to college immediately after graduation, compared with just 55 percent who do not. It would benefit parents of low-income and first-generation college hopefuls, then, to know whether a prospective high school has a strong record of FAFSA completion rates.

Now they can.

We provided funding that enabled The Education Trust-New York to develop an online data visualization tool around FAFSA completion rates for each public high school in each district in New York State. With this tool, a school’s FAFSA completion rate can be benchmarked against similar schools’ (based on share of low-income students) and top performers’, and the performance of entire school districts as well as all schools within a district can be reviewed. The tool pinpoints success stories so that effective financial aid application strategies and practices can be more broadly applied (and perhaps New Yorkers will no longer miss out on an estimated $152 million in federal financial aid by not filling out the form), but it also provides transparency so parents can know where to advocate for better results and, perhaps, which schools or districts to avoid, if they can.

We know that one of the best measures of a high school is whether its students earn a college degree, not whether they graduate from high school or just matriculate at college. Yet no such public data tool has existed in New York City, even though the data itself have long been a closely guarded secret within city education circles. Essentially, there was no way for parents to learn how many students from a particular high school persisted and graduated from college — information that would enable them to make a more informed decision about where to enroll their child.

As a workaround solution, we conceived of a project for New York City modeled after the University of Chicago’s long-standing To&Through Project. The project identifies key milestones — college persistence and graduation — and then publicly reports on the data by high school.

Working again with The Education Trust-New York, we designed our own To & Through tool to reframe college readiness around long-term student success outcomes and to identify key inflection points that enable student success with the goal of providing transparency and K-12 accountability.

Drawing on data from New York’s financial aid agency, the Higher Education Services Corp., Ed Trust-NY created a visualization tool linking high schools to college persistence and degree data. (The data universe is limited to students who enrolled in a New York college or university the fall after their high school graduation and participated in the state’s Tuition Assistance Program, which provides grants to families with taxable incomes of up to $80,000, therefore including low-income students attending both private and public in-state universities.)

These three investments have made critical school data both transparent and accessible so that all families in New York City and throughout the state can make better-informed choices when it comes to selecting the best high schools for their children.

We believe that leaders in philanthropy and government can and should do more to support similar tools that promote informed education choice. Try, for example, to uncover up-to-date persistence rates at New York public colleges instead of rates that are years out of date, or the transfer credit practices for major areas of study at senior colleges in most states, including New York. This information is known; it’s just not shared publicly. Whatever the reasons for this, and there are many, we believe in breaking down the barriers to a paternalistic approach to information-sharing in education.

Peter Sloane is chairman and CEO of Heckscher Foundation for Children.

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