WalletHub just released another report in which it ranked Louisiana 49th in education. Around the same time, The Advocate reported that 70 percent of high schools in Louisiana are rated “A” or “B.” How can both of these things be true, and where can parents of school-age kids access information about school quality they can trust?

WalletHub’s education rankings have gained some traction over the years, but they’ve also been questioned because (1) the group specializes in credit and finance, not education, and (2) its rankings are based, in part, on things that have little to do with how well schools teach kids. It bases its “best and worst school systems [in the U.S.]” report on 15 different “school quality” indicators that are a mixture of inputs, outputs, and outcomes. There’s little, if any, consideration of schools’ admissions criteria that keep some schools’ ratings high based primarily on who they enroll, not on what they do in the classroom. Twenty percent of the overall rating is based on 17 different “safety” indicators, some of which measure what policies states have in place for schools, not on actual incident data in schools. The WalletHub ranking isn’t right or wrong, and it’s fair to say that students attending school in Louisiana perform worse than most of their peers nationally in core academic subjects. The ranking just may not tell parents what they really need to know about what schools are doing about it.

The letter grade school ratings come from Louisiana’s official public school accountability system, which is required by state and federal law. It’s supposed to communicate to parents and the public clearly and accurately how well students are learning and how schools are performing so that improvements can be made. The system is based predominantly on kids’ performance on state tests that measure what they’ve learned in core academic subjects. It also measures their academic progress or growth over time, the extent to which they’ve earned valued academic and career credentials, and graduated within the standard four-year high school time frame.

Louisiana’s elementary and middle schools have roughly the same percentage of kids scoring at proficient levels on state tests as high schools, around 35 percent. But 41 percent of elementary and middle schools are rated “A” or “B,” compared to 70 percent of high schools earning those same ratings. That point alone has raised questions about the credibility of the rating system. At the same time, some elementary and middle schools are getting little or no recognition in their ratings for growing student achievement at the lowest levels while others are getting generous points for very little growth or no growth at higher levels.

When school ratings don’t seem to align with the data nor reflect what parents are experiencing in local schools, it leaves them confused and frustrated. Thankfully, state education leaders have been studying these issues and might be making changes soon. They’ve acknowledged that the system might not be sufficiently measuring and reporting what the public most needs to know about schools. To use WalletHub’s words, the system may not be sorting the “best” and the “worst” schools all that well. They’ve set out to make the system clearer, more transparent with regard to student outcomes, and more reflective of work done by schools to help all kids grow and thrive. That’s a good thing. The changes might result in some schools’ ratings being adjusted up or down as the system gets right-sized, which has adults in the school systems nervous about their image and how they’ll meet higher expectations. Those are natural reactions and anxieties, but the biggest concern should be graduating kids who they’ve taught for 12-13 years into an increasingly knowledge-based economy unprepared to continue their studies, get a job, and support a family.

That’s what parents care about, and when they read about rankings and ratings, they should have confidence that an “A” or “B” rated school is doing a good job preparing kids to meet those expectations and a school rated “D” and “F” is not. It should be that simple. On a national scale, they want to know that their kids are receiving the same quality education as kids in any other state, because Louisiana kids have just as much potential and deserve nothing less. That requires setting expectations that are on par with other states, measuring and reporting progress, and where needed, doing something different to help kids grow. Only then are rankings and ratings useful for anyone.