K-12 Education

Standardized test score rankings mask quality schools, Cedar Rapids officials say

Despite 'below average' rankings on real estate websites like Zillow, Cedar Rapids schools are still desirable

The Educational Leadership and Support Center for the Cedar Rapids Community School District at 2500 Edgewood Road NW. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
The Educational Leadership and Support Center for the Cedar Rapids Community School District at 2500 Edgewood Road NW. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Google “Cedar Rapids schools” and the online search results are fairly positive — local high schools have been named some of the best in the country by the U.S. News and World Report, the “most challenging” by the Washington Post, and they’ve consistently topped a number of statewide rankings developed by university researchers.

Aaron McCreight and his wife April read about all those measures online before he had even interviewed for a job in town last spring, he said, because enrolling their twin six-year-old boys in a quality school was the most important factor in planning the family’s move from Wyoming.

But alongside those glowing rankings, McCreight found dismal data points that rated some Cedar Rapids schools as far below average.

“We’re looking at these articles and lists and rankings, and Cedar Rapids is on every single one of these lists,” McCreight said. “Then you go to Zillow. ... They’re totally different stories, and which one is true?”

Zillow, a popular real estate website based in Seattle, offers home-shoppers a glimpse into neighborhood schools with a simplified 1-10, red-to-green scale, curated by the nonprofit GreatSchools. At the bottom of the online real estate listings for houses in Cedar Rapids — some viewed as many as 7,000 times — schools are represented with a red, yellow or green dot.

The elementary school assigned to the McCreights’ new home in the northeast quadrant — where their boys Cooper and Colin would enroll — was red. A two out of 10.

“That’s when we started picking up the phone and calling people,” McCreight said. “We couldn’t figure out the science of that.”

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McCreight didn’t trust those numbers because he said he knew better — he was, after all, about to interview for the top spot in the Cedar Rapids visitors’ bureau, now called GO Cedar Rapids. The public schools in the area are a main selling point for the city, he said.

Zillow’s rankings are developed by GreatSchools, an organization that aims to educate parents about school options. According to the Oakand-based nonprofit’s website, its rankings in Iowa are based exclusively on standardized test scores.

Schools in some states, including Illinois and Wisconsin, are ranked using additional information about college readiness and student improvement. That’s not the case in Iowa, the website states, because data is not available.

The school rankings are also only relative to other schools in the state — a below average school in Iowa could have higher scores than an Illinois school rated as average, for example.

“The good news in Cedar Rapids when we’re talking about school districts is they’re all good ones,” said Jared Vestweber, a Skogman real estate agent who works with about 100 relocating families a year.

It’s illegal for real estate agents to counsel their clients about the quality of a school or neighborhood — that’s called “steering,” and was made illegal by the Fair Housing Act of 1968 to thwart racial discrimination in housing.

So when clients ask Vestweber for information about schools, he directs them to other resources.

They often end up preferring local school districts with robust marketing — such as the College Community or Linn-Mar districts, Vestweber said.

But, “all of our schools have a good reputation,” he said. “I don’t think any one of them has a black eye.”

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That’s not the impression simplified rankings give. That can sometimes be a hurdle for real estate agents, said Jean Perkins, a former teacher who now works at Skogman.

“You just don’t get nuances in big data,” Perkins said.

Clients often come to Perkins with preconceived notions about Cedar Rapids neighborhoods, she said — and, by extension, their neighborhood schools.

That can be frustrating, she said, because test scores so often depend on the economics of the area.

“Wealthy schools are able to buy new books and materials,” she said.

State data reinforces the notion that test scores correspond with wealth.

The six nearby schools with a ranking of one or two have an average of 72 percent of students qualifying for Free or Reduced Lunch, a measure used to measure the socioeconomic standing of a student body.

In the nine area schools ranked at a nine or 10, that average drops to about 11 percent.

Perkins’ own children attended Washington High in Cedar Rapids — probably the most anomalous school in the area, considering its regular rankings and awards and its “average” four out of 10 ranking.

Perkins said she valued the diversity of the high school, where about 20 percent of students are black, more than its test scores.

“The diversity in school to me is a plus,” she said. “But if you’re just looking at big data, you’re going to miss the nuances.”

The McCreights wanted their children to attend a school with a diverse student body, too, Aaron McCreight said.

“We wanted our kids to grow up in a neighborhood and school district that had some of that diversity,” he said. “That was one of the reasons, one of many, that we ended up on the southeast side.”

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So he and his wife ignored the standardized test scores and the rankings and instead picked up the phone and called a slew of elementary school principals.

They landed on Johnson STEAM Academy in the Cedar Rapids district — a school standardized test scores rank as “below average,” but one that the McCreights decided would be a good fit for their boys based on its teaching style.

“As opposed to where we want to end up — southeast, southwest, northeast, northwest — we were ready to move to Cedar Rapids based on the quality of schools,” he said. “You can’t lose.”

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