Katherine Boehret

Grading Neighborhood Schools

Education — an issue that affects everyone in some way or another — is an ideal candidate for discussions on the Web. There, parents, students and teachers can ask questions under the cloak of Internet anonymity, which enables conversations about personal topics such as learning disabilities and teacher conflicts.

But the vastness of the Internet can leave many people wondering where to begin, especially when asking sensitive questions about education. And, even in a sea of discussions and forums on education, parents are often hungry for one piece of information above all else: data that helps them select a school for their children.

Education.com’s SchoolFinder (top right) enhances an already rich Web site (top left), while GreatSchools.net (above) works education-related content into school search results.

So this week I tried three education-related Web sites that dedicate some or all of their resources toward providing free school comparisons, including demographics, test results, teacher-to-student ratios and percentages of students eating free and reduced-price lunches.

I performed various school queries using Education.com Inc., GreatSchools Inc.’s GreatSchools.net and SchoolMatters.com by typing in a ZIP Code, city, district or school name. Overall, GreatSchools and Education.com offered the most content-packed environments, loading their sites with related articles and offering community feedback on education-related issues by way of blog posts or surveys. And though GreatSchools is 10 years older than Education.com, which made its debut in June, the latter has a broader variety of content and considers its SchoolFinder feature — newly available as of today — just a small part of the site.

Both Education.com and GreatSchools.net base a good portion of their data on information gathered by the Department of Education and the National Center for Education Statistics, the government entity that collects and analyzes data related to education.

SchoolMatters.com, a service of Standard & Poor’s, is more bare-bones, containing quick statistical comparisons of schools. (S&P is a unit of McGraw-Hill Cos. [MHP]) This site gets its content from various sources, including state departments of education, private research firms, the Census and National Public Education Finance Survey. This is evidenced by lists, charts and pie graphs that would make Ross Perot proud. I learned about where my alma mater high school got its district revenue in 2005: 83% was local, 15% was state and 2% was federal. But I couldn’t find district financial information for more recent years on the site.

All three sites base at least some school-evaluation results on test scores, a point that some of their users critique. Parents and teachers, alike, point out that testing doesn’t always paint an accurate picture of a school and can be skewed by various unacknowledged factors, such as the number of students with disabilities.

Education.com’s SchoolFinder feature is starting with roughly 47,000 schools in 10 states: California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, New Jersey and Georgia. In about two months, the site hopes to have data for all states, totaling about 60,000 public and charter schools. I was granted early access to SchoolFinder, but only Michigan was totally finished during my testing.

SchoolFinder lets you narrow your results by type (public or charter), student-to-teacher ratio, school size or Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), a measurement used to determine each school’s annual progress. Search results showed specific details on teachers that I didn’t see on the other sites, such as how many teachers were fully credentialed in a particular school and the average years of experience held by a school’s teachers.

The rest of the Education.com site contains over 4,000 articles written by well-known education sources like the New York University Child Study Center, Reading is Fundamental and the Autism Society of America. It also contains a Web magazine and a rather involved discussion-board community where members can ask questions of like-minded parents and the site’s experts, who respond with advice and suggestions of articles that might be helpful.

Private schools aren’t required to release test scores, student or teacher statistics, so none of the sites had as much data on private schools. However, GreatSchools.net at least offered basic results for most private-school queries that I performed, such as a search for Salesianum School in Delaware (where a friend of mine attended) that returned the school’s address, a list of the Advanced Placement exams it offered from 2006 to 2007 and six rave reviews from parents and former students.

GreatSchools.net makes it easy to compare schools, even without knowing specific names. After finding a school, I was able to easily compare that school with others in the geographic area or school district — using a chart with numerous results on one screen. After entering my email address, I saved schools to My School List for later reference.

I couldn’t find each school’s AYP listed on GreatSchools.net, though these data were on Education.com and SchoolMatters.com.

SchoolMatters.com doesn’t provide articles, online magazines or community forums. Instead, it spits out data — and lots of it. A search for “Philadelphia” returned 324 schools in a neat comparison chart that could, with one click, be sorted by grade level, reading test scores, math test scores or students per teacher. (The Julia R. Masterman Secondary School had the best reading and math test scores in Philadelphia, according to the site.)

SchoolMatters.com didn’t have nearly as much user feedback as Education.com or GreatSchools.net. But stats like a school’s student demographics, household income distribution and the district’s population age distribution were accessible thanks to colorful pie charts.

These three sites provide a good overall idea of what certain schools can offer, though GreatSchools.net seems to have the richest content in its school comparison section. Education.com excels as a general education site and will be a comfort to parents in search of reliable advice. Its newly added SchoolFinder, while it’s in early stages now, will only improve this resource for parents and students.

Edited by Walter S. Mossberg

Email mossbergsolution@wsj.com

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