Evaluating a school’s quality is is complicated. This is especially true with a high school, where student performance reflects not just how good that school is, but the effectiveness of every other school students have attended. But there are some good reasons to avoid a school, or at least think hard about other options.

  1. It’s not safe.

    Every school has shortcomings. But if the place isn’t safe, that’s a nonstarter. This isn’t just for parents’ peace of mind. Study after study has shown that concerns about safety at school have a significant effect on learning. If your local high school has a reputation for fighting or bullying there’s no bigger warning sign. After all, if the school can’t ensure basic safety, it’s likely that other priorities are going unmet too.

  2. The instruction is poor.

    This can be a hard thing for a parent to determine except by word of mouth from families with experience of the school. And even then, the reporting is likely being done by teenagers, who are not always the most neutral or best judges of what makes a good teacher. But in general, poor or low-quality instruction may be characterized by teachers who lack subject knowledge, have poor classroom control, behave unprofessionally, don’t offer support for students who need it, and fail to set goals for students or themselves.

  3. Kids aren’t graduating.

    If the dropout rate is higher than 10 percent (check the school’s profile page on greatschools.org to see the graduation rate) at the school you’re considering, ask why. Are the teachers fully engaged? Are the students? Do kids advance to the next grade level without meeting basic reading and math competencies? There are certainly examples of great schools that still struggle with a core of underachieving students (these kids are failing despite the schools’ best efforts, not because of them). But when underachievement is the norm, it can be hard for anyone — kids or teachers — to swim against the current for long.

  4. It isn’t serving all students.

    When choosing a school, one of the most important things to look at is equity. Find the school’s profile on GreatSchools.org and see what the school’s equity rating is. This number reflects how low-income and other students from disadvantaged groups do academically at this school; it also reflects the gap between the performance of those students and students who aren’t from disadvantaged backgrounds. A low equity rating may mean some student groups are not getting the help they need, while a high rating means a school is closing the achievement gap.

    Scroll down the profile page to where it says Race/Ethnicity and you will able to see test scores, measures of college readiness, and even discipline and attendance broken down by race and ethnicity. How well are students like yours doing at this school? Click “compare,” and you’ll be able to see how this compares to other high schools near you.

    Keep in mind that equity is an important measure for everyone. It takes a well-run and effective school to teach kids who don’t have a lot of resources. A high equity rating means a school is doing a good job of teaching all kids. Schools with high equity ratings are the exception rather than the rule, but they’re out there.

  5. There are too many students and not enough teachers.

    There’s evidence suggesting that class size isn’t the holy grail it’s sometimes billed to be. But this year represents the first on record that the United States has seen education jobs decline while enrollment rose, according to BusinessWeek. This is a general trend, of course, and individual schools will weather it differently. Nevertheless, it serves to highlight the crisis of overcrowded classes and overworked teachers in some schools. When considering a high school, make sure there’s space for your child — figuratively and literally.

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Updated: December 6, 2019