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What's in a School Letter Grade? Perhaps Not So Much for NOLA Parents

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Parent surveys tend to overstate the importance of academics in school choices among families in New Orleans' all-charter system, according to a new study.

This is especially true of low-income families, says a report from the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans housed in Tulane University.

Although academic performance does drive parent choice to an extent, distance and extracurricular activities are among other factors that influence school decisions.

Analyzing 2013-14 data from the city's single enrollment system called OneApp, the study found that "legacy" school names—or names that were used before Hurricane Katrina kicked off the city's charter conversion—were also preferred by families.

OneApp allows families to list up to eight school picks, and then uses an algorithm to match students to schools.

Although academics aren't insignificant, school performance often loses out to a combination of other factors.

For example, parents preferred a C-graded elementary school located across the street with an after-school care program to a B school with no such program and two miles away. Parents also typically chose a C-graded legacy high school with football and band over a B-graded school.

Low-income families are more likely to preference these nonacademic factors, especially location and after-school care, in their school choices.

The report's authors write:

"The fact that families have 'more choices' and seem to actively exercise choice does not necessarily mean that communities are better off. Education fulfills social goals that go beyond what 'consumers' might want."
That being said, the report also points out that very, low-income families are not necessarily worse off academically because, "there is some evidence that average academic quality has improved and become more equally distributed across the city."

The report also says that school performance became more important to parents with the introduction of OneApp and a school grading system. Most likely this occurred because the grades are prominently displayed in the OneApp system as parents are enrolling.

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