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S&P Opens A Rating Service On Schools

Site Offers Public Comparative Data

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 30, 2005; Page B01

With the launch of a nationwide Web site yesterday, parents in the District, Maryland and Virginia will have access to the kind of detailed information about their public schools that investors have long had about Fortune 500 companies.

The free Web site, SchoolMatters.com, was developed by financial data giant Standard & Poor's and offers a searchable collection of education data, including per-pupil spending, student performance and classroom size.

Montgomery County parent John Hoven says the Web site needs work but is a promising resource. (File Photo)

Standard & Poor's got the idea for compiling the data when it noticed that some school districts were saying the company's bond ratings proved that they were doing a good job in the classroom, said Abby Potts with the Council of Chief State School Officers, one of the sponsors of the Web site. The company began to offer the education data as a better measure of teaching and learning. It also established firewalls between its school evaluators and its bond raters so that they could not influence one another, Potts said.

Early reaction from some Washington area parents suggests that the site is giving people what they want.

"I'm always in favor of giving people more information," said Dick Reed, a former PTA president at Fairfax County's Edison High School. "The more the better, and this site does that well -- both by providing information that parents, in particular, have trouble getting at all, and by providing that hard-to-get information in an easily read and understood fashion."

But some school district administrators said some Web site numbers are wrong, out of date or easily misinterpreted. Sharon Ackerman, assistant superintendent for instruction in the Loudoun County schools, said staffing trends and class size numbers for 2002 to 2003 were out of touch with reality. One page of the Web site said some schools in Loudoun averaged 132 students in each classroom, she said.

"This site could be useful for parents as a starting point to find information about past performance of students in specific schools," Ackerman said. "However, the data must be accurate."

Web site officials said the class size and other numbers came from federal education agencies.

The Web site is run by the Education Data Partnership, a collaboration that includes the Council of Chief State School Officers, Standard & Poor's, the nonprofit group Achieve Inc., which manages state education standards, and the CELT Corp., a technology company. The work is supported by grants from the Broad Education Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The site provides test score results by race and also by economic background. It also shows the differences in how school systems spend tax dollars and allows residents concerned about how money is spent to see what portion of new revenue coming into each district is spent on instruction.

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