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School Ratings Give Parents Info, But Not Transfer Options, Study Finds

Ratings-based accountability systems are intended to give parents more information to choose a good school, but a study slated for the October issue of the American Sociological Review suggests poor families who transfer often don't find better options.

New York University researchers tracked enrollment patterns in the Chicago public schools in the late 1990s, after the district put schools on "academic probation" for poor performance.

Both poor and well-off families were more likely to transfer their students to other schools if their own was put on probation, but poor families transferred at lower rates than nonpoor families. Moreover, students from poor families more often stayed in the district, ending up in schools that still performed below the district average academically.

By contrast, students from better-off families were more likely to transfer out of the district or to private schools.

"Simply giving families school choice doesn't alleviate the structural and financial constraints that limit alternatives in the first place," said Peter M. Rich, a New York University sociologist and co-author of the study. "In certain contexts, families could be responsive to information about school quality ... but the fact that so few students were able to upgrade in any meaningful way, and the fact that family income played a role in whether families could respond in the first place, suggest there are bigger structural things going on."

Using separate spatial data, Rich found schools on probation clustered tightly in areas which were more than half black or Hispanic, limiting families' nearby options for better schools.

There were some racial differences within families of the same economic means. Hispanic families were more likely than those of other races to remain at a school even after it had been put on academic probation. At the time of the initiative in the late 1990s, Rich suggested, programs for bilingual students were less widespread in the district, and families who needed English-language-learning services may have had even fewer transfer options.


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