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Back to (Better) Schools: Most Improved School Districts in the U.S. Biggest Cities

By David Weidner | August 25, 2016
Millennials rank schools among their highest priorities when it comes to finding a home. We’ve identified up-and-coming districts in the nation’s biggest metros.

For young families, finding quality public schools is a critical part of the home search process. When we surveyed millennials aged 18-34 in February about what was most important in a new home, they ranked quality schools just behind low crime and short commutes.

As our salute to the start of a new school year, we partnered with SchoolDigger.com to find school districts on the rise in each of the 10 biggest U.S. metros (we’ve also created a searchable database to find most-improved districts in the top 100 metros). We examined state test scores from the past five years to determine which districts are gaining on their peers in this area. Our list of big improvers stretches from the Cobble Hill neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY, to Acton-Agua, a small district in the northeast corner of metro Los Angeles.

This isn’t a ranking of the best schools. What we aimed to do was find school districts making big strides relative to their peers. We ranked metro-area schools against one another, identifying those making leaps in academic progress as measured by test scores.

School districts vary in size – some have just one school and only a few students – and that can skew the rankings. To avoid that pitfall, we eliminated districts with less than three schools and fewer than 1,000 students. For example, suburban Atlanta’s Social Circle City is compared with just 35 districts because that’s the number that met our size threshold.

Using SchoolDigger’s proprietary database of state test scores, we looked at how students in qualifying districts performed in 2011 and compared that with 2015 results. We added median home prices to give home seekers an idea of how much moving into one of these rising districts might cost.

Using test scores is just a starting point to make baseline comparisons on improving school districts, but test scores are not the only factor families use to determine the right school district for them.


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Some highlights of our study:

  • Test scores in New York City Geographic District 15 in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill neighborhood have skyrocketed to 59.1 from 22.8, putting it in the top half of qualifying New York metro districts. But Cobble Hill is expensive, with median home prices close to $2 million.
  • The Phoenix Elementary District saw test scores rise 28% in the past five years, but the district still ranks in the bottom half – 31st out of 50 qualifying districts in Phoenix.
  • In Blue Island, Il., on the south side of metro Chicago, District 218 consists of just four high schools. But the district now ranks 61st among qualifying districts, a big jump from 101st in 2011.
  • With 43 schools, Mansfield Independent School District in the Dallas metro is one of the biggest on our list of improvers. In 2015, it ranked 22nd among qualifying districts in the Dallas area, up from 47th four years earlier.

District Metro No. of Schools Enrollment[1] Grade Levels Median Home Price 2011 State Test Score 2015 State Test Score 2011 Rank[2] 2015 Rank Improvement
NYC Geographic District 15 New York-Jersey City-White Plains, NY-NJ 47 29,504 PK-12 1,588,185 22.8 59.1 160/181 82/181 +78
Acton-Agua Dulce Unified Los Angeles-Long Beach-Glendale, CA 6 2,383 K-12 $519,216 48.9 63.48 49/76 35/76 +14
Community High School District 218 Chicago-Naperville-Arlington Heights, IL 4 5,590 9-12 $176,551 31.7 55.8 102/114 61/114 +41
Ninos Charter School Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, TX 3 1,013 PK-8 $399,900 45.5 59.6 48/56 22/56 +26
Social Circle City[3] Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell, GA 4 1,706 3-12 $216,438 49.3* 54.7 27/35* 17/35 +10
Culpeper County Public Schools Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV 11 8,080 PK-12 $301,630 42.5 46.11 18/24 14/24 +4
Phoenix Elementary District Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, AZ 16 7,307 PK-8 $228,820 21.8 28.0 49/50 31/50 +18
Mansfield Independent School District Dallas-Plano-Irving, TX 43 32,779 PK-12 $178,000 50.4 70.0 47/61 22/61 +25
Jordan Public School District Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI 4 1,815 PK-12 $264,900 60.2 77.4 54/70 23/70 +31
Victor Valley Union High Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA 10 14,200 7-12 $211,634 35.0 38.2 38/47 26/47 +12

[1] 2015

[2] Rank among metro districts by test score as measured by SchoolDigger.com

[3] Test score data from 2012

Educate Yourself

As our list shows, many of the school districts registering the biggest improvement are relatively small. A number of them, including Victor Valley Union High and Culpeper County Public Schools, are in the outer geographic extremes of their metros. For instance, Culpeper County, Va., is 70 miles from Washington.

In addition, although the districts have improved, in some cases the test scores are low relative to better performing districts in their metros. In other words, just because a district’s test scores have gotten better, it doesn’t mean its schools are top performers. In addition, the district may not be an option logistically for some home seekers because of distance or other reasons.

Although not many bigger-city districts made our most-improved list, plenty of them are moving up impressively in test-score rankings. New York City is chock full of districts where progress rivals Brooklyn’s District 15. In the Los Angeles metro, Antelope Valley and Pomona Unified have also improved dramatically.

To help you find the right district in your big metro, we’ve created a sortable database using SchoolDigger data along with our home price listing medians.

Methodology

To come up with our rankings, we used school-level aggregated test score data from SchoolDigger.com. Here is more information about how SchoolDigger calculates a school’s Average Standard Score. Only schools that fell within the boundaries of the MSAs were included in the analysis, so even if a district has several locations outside the MSA borders, only schools in the MSA were considered. An average test score was calculated for each school district, weighted by the number of students enrolled in each district school. Districts with fewer than 3 schools in the MSA or fewer than 1,000 students were dropped before we ranked the districts for 2011 and 2015. The most-improved districts were those whose rankings had increased by the largest amount relative to other districts in the MSA. To determine median home prices for each district, we used internal Trulia listings data to look at median listing values in all zip codes containing schools within a given school district. We weighted these ZIP code prices by the number of students in each ZIP to determine a weighted average of median home prices for the district itself.