Spotlight

S&P in the value-added business

by Brett Schaeffer
Standard and Poor’s, a financial firm better known for its bond ratings worldwide, is also in the business of collecting and analyzing school data, from test score results to the cost of a school lunch program.

In 2001, Michigan and Pennsylvania hired S&P to organize and analyze school data for every school district. Each state paid $2 million for the service, according to Bob Durante, a director with S&P’s School Evaluation Services.

Now, with funding from the Eli Broad Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education, S&P has embarked on a mission to assemble a soup-to-nuts collection of school data for all 50 states.

One piece of that project is nearly complete: Schoolresults.org, a website that organizes relevant statistical information for the No Child Left Behind Act, such as adequate yearly progress results, has data on 47 states as of early fall. The project’s next step is to collect additional information, including school spending data, for all 50 states, says Durante.

The goal is for school officials to be able to compare their districts to state and county numbers as well as to other districts of similar size and demographics. Mike Flanagan, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators, says he urged S&P to bring together comparable districts to share best practices for school staff.

Funding for the School Information Project has come from public coffers and private sources. The U.S. Department of Education gave a 2003 grant for $4.7 million to the Broad Foundation, and the Broad Foundation matched that funding, according to David Almacy, a spokesperson with the Department of Education. The estimated total cost for the project is $50 million, and the U.S. Department of Education is currently reviewing whether it will issue another grant to Broad for 2005, said Almacy.

Strong Booster

Al Lonoconus, superintendent of the Southern Columbia School District in central Pennsylvania, was an early pioneer of the service S&P now is rolling out to the rest of the country. He began using S&P’s online data analysis when he became schools chief three years ago.

At first, the big part was test score comparisons,” he says. “We can go in and compare like school districts and like schools based on socioeconomic data. For similar schools that were doing as well or better than we were, we made calls to find out the types of things they were doing,” he says. “We never before had that type of data.”

Now, Lonoconus adds, his 1,400-student district is using S&P to examine economic data.

“We’re looking at facilities and budgets and looking at districts within our county and districts in the state, and our ability to tax compared to other districts of similar size,” he says. Lonoconus says his district is below state, county and comparable district averages in terms of its expenditures per student.

“The S&P analysis has pretty much confirmed what we already thought, but having an outside group come in and confirm it means it’s no longer an assumption,” says the superintendent. “That’s very important. If we do have to ask for a tax increase, at least we can show we’re not way out of line.”

A Preferable Source

While Lonoconus has been active in his use of the S&P data, some education researchers question whether superintendents throughout the country will turn to S&P for data on their district.

With S&P in Michigan for the past three years, the schools I’ve dealt with almost never used it,” says Bettie Landauer-Menchik, head of the data services unit for the K-12 outreach program at Michigan State University’s Education Policy Center.

Landauer-Menchik says district administrators are more likely to turn to the state’s school report cards — which contain the same data — than to the S&P site.