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Race and the Mismeasure of School Quality

In most states and cities, the elementary and middle schools that receive the highest marks from GreatSchools.com, U.S. News and World Report and other rating sites tend to be largely populated by White and Asian students. This pattern is so consistent that a group of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Brown University, and the University of California, Berkeley, sought to find whether the link between school ranking and a school’s racial make-up was due to the quality of education they provide or students who choose to attend them. The study focuses on middle schools in New York City and Denver. 

The authors, led by MIT researcher Josh Angrist, created two measures to test their theory: predictive accuracy, defined as the correlation between the school’s rating and its impact on achievement, and racial imbalance, defined as the relationship between the rating and White enrollment. 

Using these measures, the authors find a strong correlation between a school’s performance rating and its racial composition. But there is no such correlation between the quality of the education it provides and racial composition. That suggests that the rating is based more on selection bias–the economic background and resources available to the students who attend the school–rather than on the school’s impact on learning.

This research highlights the importance of accounting for racial composition when producing school ratings.

-By Nathan Kriha