FirstLine Live Oak School in Uptown. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

Providing school performance information to families made Black applicants, male applicants and students with disabilities more likely to apply to a high-performing school through the NOLA Public School district’s centralized enrollment system OneApp, according to a study released by the Education Research Alliance on Tuesday.

The most drastic increase came in students with disabilities, who were 12.6 percentage points more likely to apply to a high-performing school when given the performance data in advance and were then 7.3 percentage points more likely to be assigned to a high-performing school.

“In my view that’s actually the most important finding in the study,” researcher Jon Valant said in a Monday interview. “In New Orleans and beyond it has been difficult to provide information and support to students with disabilities and meet the needs of that community. If you look at the information they get, it just does not contain the richness and helpfulness for what kind of education your kid is going to get.”

Valant, with the Brookings Institution, co-authored the study with Lindsay Bell Weixler, with Tulane University, that provided year-over-year academic growth scores to families, a relatively new state measure that accounts for student academic growth year over year. Some experts argue it’s a better measure of a school than absolute test scores, which don’t necessarily account for how much a student learns in the building. They focused on growth rather than the schools’ overall state-issued letter grade that many are familiar with. 

OneApp opens Friday for 2021-2022 enrollment and the district currently provides a standard set of information about every public school on its enrollment website. It includes the school’s state-issued A-F letter grade, leadership and programming information, and extracurricular and transportation information. But families must go looking for it. 

The study included just over 7,000 families with students entering pre-kindergarten, kindergarten or 9th grade in the 2019-2020 school year. Researchers divided families into three categories. They received either information about high-performing schools in the city, schools nearest their home or generic reminders of OneApp deadlines.

Valant thinks that growth information is likely some of the most in-depth results families of a student with a disability have seen in regards to specific schools. Other than specific program information, OneApp has limited information about special education programming on its website, including an icon of a person in a wheelchair that indicates whether a building is wheelchair accessible.

“There is a thirst for information in that community,” Valant said of families with children who qualify for special education services. “Parents of students with disabilities just want to see more information and support in navigating the process.”

In addition to students with disabilities, two other groups saw a higher percentage point increase.

“In the Performance group, Black applicants, male applicants, and students with disabilities were more likely to apply to a high performing school by 4.2, 5.8, and 12.6 percentage points, respectively,” the authors wrote. 

Performance versus location

Families in the baseline group received simple reminders about OneApp deadlines, something ERA has previously shown can be helpful for pre-kindergarten applicants. Other families in the study received either information about school performance or schools close to their home. 

“In particular what we found is when you provide families with information about which schools perform the best, they tend to prefer those schools,” Valant said. “Providing families with information had more of an effect had a bigger effect on families requesting ninth grade and families with a student with disabilities.”

“On the distance side, we saw more modest effects,” he said. “When you provide information about schools I don’t think it really surprised either of us because families probably have a good sense of which schools are closer to their home and … it’s harder to know which are having the best effect on academic outcomes.”

Weixler focused on pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students. The researchers did not see as large an increase in their application numbers when it came to performance information, but providing information on which schools were nearby did appear to influence their decision.

“Kindergarten applicants who received a list of nearby schools were 4.1 percentage points more likely to request one of those schools on the OneApp,” they wrote.

Weixler said the lesser effects on the younger students could be explained by the sample group.

“One thing that occurred to me is it’s partly the group of families NOLA-PS was able to contact for this was families that had applied before,” she said. “Families don’t appear in the NOLA-PS system unless families have interacted in the system in some way.”

“The group of families who have applied to kindergarten is very different than the group applying for their ninth grade year,” she said, noting it is possible having families involved with OneApp for the first time could have an effect. 

“It’s a gap in an all-choice system. The district can’t directly contact a family until the family has contacted them. It makes it difficult for the district to contact families in the pre-kindergarten, kindergarten years,” she said. 

When it came to ninth grade students, those receiving performance information “led to a 3.8 percentage point increase in the likelihood that a family would request at least one” of the city’s highest-rated schools.

“In general we found that high school students who got that flyer with the list of higher performing schools were more likely to list the higher performing schools,” Weixler said.

She also had another theory on the increased effect in the ninth grade students. 

“There’s a very different dynamic in selecting a high school,” she said. “Many students have opinions about where they want to go to school and here you may see a little shifting” to the parents in final decision making with the additional information.

Weixler and Valant both agree that wraparound supports are necessary in a citywide choice-based system.

“I think the larger takeaway here is at least some families in the system benefit from additional information and that’s something we’re thinking about as a system, how do we communicate that?” Weixler said.

“Navigating this type of choice-based system is difficult for families,” Valant said. “It’s a system that requires some additional support for families — that can be transportation, it can information so it really is finding out how to deliver what families need.”

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...