How parents’ online school reviews reflect racial disparities

'School rating websites have come under scrutiny for ratings systems that overemphasize test scores'
By: | March 2, 2021
(AdobeStock/Astrovector studio)(AdobeStock/Astrovector studio)

Racial and income disparities in public education are reflected in school reviews that parents posted to one popular website, a new analysis shows.

A majority of reviews on focused heavily on tests scores, which are closely correlated with race and family income, according to the first-of-its-kind study published by the the American Educational Research Association.

Many of these comments were also written by parents at schools in affluent neighborhoods, the research found.

On the other hand, school effectiveness—which measures how much test scores improve over time and is less linked to demographics—was a much less common topic.

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“School rating websites have come under scrutiny for ratings systems that overemphasize test scores,” said study coauthor Nabeel Gillani, a doctoral student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Now we’ve found that subjective online parent reviews can do the same.”

The value parents placed on students’ current performance, rather than on growth over time, reflects the longstanding use of test scores as the main indicator of school quality. Further research could determine whether these reviews exacerbate school segregation or other barriers to high-quality education, Gillani said.

The researchers used natural language processing technology to analyze about 830,000 reviews of more than 110,000 schools.

Parents were more likely to review schools in urban areas and buildings serving affluent families. There researchees also found clear differences between the language used by parents of children at majority-white and minority-white schools

“Wording such as ‘the PTA,’ ‘emails,’ ‘private school,’ ‘we,’ and ‘us’ are predictive of test scores, reflecting the tendency of more affluent, non-minority parents to have dual-parent households, digital connectivity, more schooling options, and more time to be involved and communicate regularly with teachers,” said Deb Roy, who directs MIT’s Center for Constructive Communication.

“These results reveal the subtle and sometimes hidden patterns in the words we use, sending signals and encoding biases that pervade our social realities,” Roy said.

The findings also reveal that parents in lower-income, minority schools may have fewer voices to learn from, Gillani added.

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“Unfortunately, many of these parents are not always tapped into social networks where they can readily receive guidance that helps them identify and select the best schools for their children,” Gillani said.

GreatSchools and MIT are partnering to explore site modifications that could mitigate potential inequity issues. The study’s authors, for instance, suggest that sites such as encourage parents to place more value on growth as a measure of school quality.

“One of the goals of school rating sites is to use available data to democratize access to information about school quality,” Gillani said. “We need more representative voices talking about a more holistic set of topics if we want to maximize opportunities and outcomes for all students, especially those from less privileged backgrounds.”

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