Grades. How we love ‘em. They tell us if we’re worthy. An A makes you feel good, doesn’t it? A B? Now you’re feeling a bit mediocre. C? Yuck. D? Let’s not talk about that.

In light of this national fixation, Colorado parents may be interested in a new website that grades the state’s public schools. This may be especially helpful during the current open enrollment period.

North High SchoolUnveiled today by a range of education-oriented organizations, Colorado School Grades tallies grades for all the state’s public schools based on standardized test data and student improvement in core subject areas.

I like data, and this site definitely provides some relevant information – particularly the growth data.

However, I caution parents against overreliance on data and grades. If a school in your neighborhood gets a C does that mean you should scratch it off your list? Not necessarily. There are so many nuances that won’t be reflected in these grades. Think of a school’s special programs, for instance, or that rock star art teacher.

I did a quick test of the system by plugging in my zip code. Turns out my kid is enrolled in a solid B school. Ironically, the number one school that pops up in Boulder – earning an outstanding A+ –  is a charter school, Horizons K-8, which, as I understand it, doesn’t put much emphasis – if any – on letter grades.

The problem with that school, and the other great schools in Boulder and beyond, is that they’re very hard to get into. More often than not (at least in Boulder) they’re charter schools, which means you’re at the mercy of the lottery system. (I addressed this issue in a previous post on open enrollment.)

All this data can make your head spin. By now, I think we can all agree that academic proficiency data tells you only so much – primarily it tells you about the demographic mix of a school building.

Why growth data matters

More interesting to me is the growth data. The key is to find out whether the school’s students are on an upward academic trajectory. Even in high-achieving schools, students should be improving.

In the growth category, my daughter’s school ranks very similarly to the very high-achieving neighborhood school a few blocks away. My daughter’s neighborhood school is 21 percent Hispanic or Latino; the school down the street is far less diverse, with only 10 percent of students identified as Hispanic or Latino. Both have 22 percent low-income students.

My daughter’s school gets a B; the school down the street gets an A. Yet I happen to place a value on the diversity factor – especially being in  Boulder, which just isn’t very diverse at all. Yet, that is something – along with my daughter’s school’s awesome Garden to Table program, its Boltage bike and walk to school program, or its outstanding art teacher and multiple after-school clubs –  that are not reflected in this nifty new data tool. Nor is the fact that our school has ranked consistently higher on school climate surveys than other area schools, which also happens to be important to me. (Key lesson here: Sure, check out all the data you can; but always visit a school you are considering to learn more).

How the grading is done

The Center for Education Policy Analysis at the University of Colorado Denver’s School of Public Affairs calculated the grades for Colorado School Grades using the same variables and weights as the Colorado Department of Education’s School Performance Framework, also known as SchoolView. That data includes indicators such as a school’s academic achievement, academic growth, academic growth gaps and, for high schools, college/career readiness.

Colorado School Grades then crunched the data through a forced grading curve that ranks schools from top to bottom. The top 10 percent of schools were give an A grade (A+, A or A-), the next 25 percent were given a B rating, the next 50 percent were given a C rating, the next 10 percent were given a D rating, and the bottom 5 percent were give an F rating.

For parents, the grading system makes sense compared to the arcane language now used by the state in determining school ratings.

What to do with the info

However, now I’m left with the information that my daughter’s school is not A material. So, what can I do? She’s in fourth grade, so, for many reasons, it’s too late to switch. I volunteer when I can. And yes, I’d love it if my daughter’s school was more like Horizons K-8, a charter school with a well-earned reputation for greatness that features mixed age groupings, multiple forms of assessment other than just grades, individualized goal setting, student-led family conferences, and small class sizes. I have visited this school and marveled at the quality and creativity evident in the student art on the walls.

But my daughter’s neighborhood school has 600-plus students. How in the world do you make systemic change in a school like that? Like many public schools and colleges, bureaucracy is entrenched.

And there are certain factors that cannot be ignored: Horizons K-8 is 88 percent white; has only 7 percent low-income kids; and 2 percent Latino or Hispanic students. Perhaps more importantly, Horizons has half the number of students my daughter’s school has  – and three more grade levels. Waiting lists are lengthy. How can we replicate these sought-after schools so that every child really has a chance of attending one? How can we – as parents – help to transform the culture of large, public neighborhood schools?

That’s personally what I’d like to know. Meantime, check out Colorado School Grades, and check out the state’s SchoolView system. I will say, the former is much easier to navigate and understand than the latter if you’re short on time – although it doesn’t provide links to actual schools, which would be helpful. I still like SchoolView, however, because of its engaging visual interface, which clearly shows you whether a school is both performing at a proficient level and improving. (Click on Colorado Growth Model, then View Data).

But don’t forget that data is simply that, data. Get out there and visit schools in person. Ask questions based on your own values regarding what constitutes a quality education. For starters, check out this school checklist courtesy Colorado School Grades.