How to Evaluate a K-12 School

By Abner Oakes

ISA's Director of Outreach


evaluating a K12 schoolChoosing a school for your child is very personal. Every child is unique, and different children will thrive in different environments. You want to choose a school that is a good match– a good fit– because school is where your child will be able to develop his/her potential, blossom, and be whole.  What works for one child will not necessarily work for another.

Things to Consider

There are different kinds of “right schools.” So how do you choose the right school for your child? Getting multiple sources of information will give you an advantage in making the best possible decision. There are first and second hand sources that can be helpful, such as school visits, conversations with trusted knowledgeable friends and educators, national and local websites that evaluate schools and allow for parents and students to comment on them, and official performance data such as report cards and test scores. Performance data and academic curriculum are important when choosing a school, but if the school is not a fit for your child, it won’t matter how good the curriculum is because an unhappy child will not engage it.

The best way to evaluate a school is through firsthand experience, which means to visit the school where you can see the teaching and learning and experience the climate and culture. If you can’t visit, try to find a few students and parents who can give you firsthand accounts of their experiences with the school. Do any of your child’s friends’ siblings attend schools that you are considering? Talk with them. Trusted teachers and counselors in the school system are also good sources.

Secondhand information: school brochures and websites, state and local report cards, test scores, and external organization websites can give you information about the school to be used in conjunction with firsthand information.

Checklist for School Visits

  1. Know your child and the conditions under which he/she thrives:  Does your child do best in an environment with explicit structures and limits or one with more flexibility? Does your child tend to be outgoing or reticent? Does your child like competition or collaboration? Does your child like rules or freedom? Where is your child on these continuums? When visiting a school, try to see your child in the environment you see –can you see your child thriving here? Let your gut speak to you.
  2. Classrooms: Ask to sit in on a few classrooms: math, science, and English Language arts are good ones to choose. Stay for at least 15-20 minutes if you can. Do students look interested in what is going on? Do they appear respectful to the teacher and to one another? Do questions and tasks ask students to give their opinions, or are they primarily engaged in factual recall? Do students raise questions about the topic under study? Are students expected to give reasons to support their perspectives? Is there primarily recitation between teacher and student, or is there discussion? Do students have an opportunity to work with one another, or do they work only alone? Do students appear to understand the material and ideas and skills that are under study? Does the teacher appear enthusiastic? Do students appear actively engaged and stimulated by their work? Can you see your child thriving in this classroom?
  3. Student work: Is student work on display? Ask to see student work or work products. Some schools keep portfolios of student work. Is the work mostly tests? Do students produce products such as reports (research, essays, fiction), displays, artifacts, science lab reports, graphs, charts, videos, websites, and Internet products? Are rubrics available for assessing the work? Sometimes they are displayed with the work so that the viewer can see how it was assessed. Has someone responded to the work with more than a grade? Does the work look authentic or lifted?  What is the nature of the work: Were students required to analyze, create, or apply ideas, knowledge or skills? Can you see your child producing such work? Would your child be engaged by such work? Do students have opportunities to use different technologies as learning tools to produce work?
  4. Curriculum and Courses: In order for students to be prepared for post-secondary education and careers, they need to have higher order thinking skills and be effective communicators both in writing and orally. Review the school’s curriculum and some sample unit and lesson plans to see if there are abundant opportunities for students to apply higher order thinking skills and to write both as a part of learning as well as extended pieces. Is writing expected in all classes? Reading is equally important. Do students have opportunities to read more than textbooks? Do they read primary sources, articles from popular media, adolescent and multi-culture literature in multiple genres, old classics as well as new classics? Does the curriculum emphasize ideas in addition to facts? Does it emphasize deep exploration of topics and ideas to promote understanding or a superficial survey? Does the curriculum require students to examine ideas, take a position, and defend it with evidence, or is the curriculum primarily test preparation?
    • At the secondary level, are there courses in English language arts, mathematics, the sciences, and in social studies so that students can attain the credits they need for graduation and college admission? Are there courses in the arts? Do the courses correspond to your child’s interests?
    • At the high school level, are there courses for advanced study: opportunities to take college level courses, dual enrollment, advanced placement, internships? Are there formal opportunities for students to get help in academic areas where they are struggling: tutoring, writing center, alternative assignments?
  5. Is there a formal college preparation program that provides students and families with information about post- secondary education options? Are there opportunities for students to obtain individual college counseling with a knowledgeable counselor? Is financial, scholarship and loan information provided to students and families? Does the school take students on trips to local and out of town colleges? Is preparation provided for college admission tests? Does the school provided guidance for students to complete college applications
  6. What to ask the principal or staff: Taking with the principal and staff will let you know how responsive they are to students’ and parents’ concerns. The following questions not only give you information to match against your vision for your child’s education, they permit you to see how responsive a person the principal is and whether the school encourages responsiveness in its culture:
    • What is the school’s vision of an ideal graduate?
    • What are the three most rigorous assignments given to students?
    • What are the opportunities for advanced study?
    • What supports does the school provide for students when they struggle academically? When they struggle socially or emotionally?
    • Does every student have an official “go-to” adult who knows him/her well?
    • What are the communication vehicles for parents to be informed of how their children are doing and what assignments they are given?
    • What do students love best about this school?
    • What do students complain most about this school?
  7. Data: There is a lot of what is called data about schools: Report card grades, test scores and other school level information, websites, and brochures.  District and school websites and brochures often highlight the achievements of schools so that families can learn what the offerings are: curriculum, courses, electives, foreign languages, sports, and other extra curricular activities.  School report cards may be district or state generated documents obtainable on the Internet. They provide important statistical data such as student attendance rates, graduation rates, college admission rates, student suspension rates (these rates tell you about safety), and test scores. Although high performing schools have high rates of attendance, graduation and college going and high test scores, test scores correlate with income; so high test scores often means a high income school. While test scores are an indicator of high performance, having the highest test scores in a district does not by itself make a school the best one in the district. Some report cards give schools letter grades, A, B, C, D, & F. These grades are often not reliable as the formulas that determine them tend to be more politics than science. More reliable are the individual indicators of attendance, suspension, graduation, and college acceptance rates because they refer to actual school activity, and there is no ambiguity.  They are simple facts.

This blog was written by Dr. Gerry House for noodle.org.