Choosing a neighborhood with good schools often is near the top of the list for homebuyers. But what makes a school better than the next goes beyond test scores and student-teacher ratios.
To find out which schools make the grade, homebuyers can tap into Web sites that offer an assortment of school and neighborhood data. Generally, the sites mine government school and demographic data to generate their school profiles, so details on private schools are harder to come by.
This week, I tried out four: Zillow.com, NeighborhoodScout.com, SchoolMatters.com and Education.com. They all had comparable school data, but some notable differences depending on whether the site was geared toward a real estate audience or parents simply researching schools.
For example, Education.com's forums and parent feedback pages for schools appeared to be more active than similar offerings on the other sites. But NeighborhoodScout and Zillow were better at placing the school results in the context of a home buying decision.
The wealth of information can be daunting and it's easy to get bogged down in performance metrics like test scores and graduation rates. So it helps to make a list of what is most important to you in choosing a school. High test scores? Special programs? Student diversity? A high percentage of parents with advanced degrees?
"There is no perfect approach," says Mary Perry, deputy director of EdSource, a nonprofit that conducts research into education in California.
Let's say "I want my child to go to school with the children of Ph.D's," she explains. "On the other hand, you may in fact want your child to go to school with kids from a wide variety of different backgrounds; test scores alone aren't going to tell you that."
One of the more comprehensive sites is SchoolMatters.com, operated by Standard & Poor's. The site combines test scores, demographic data, parent feedback and other information on schools nationwide.
Parents can search for a specific school or look up nearby schools by ZIP code, district or city.
Search results include grade levels offered, the schools' overall proficiency in state-level reading and math tests, the ratio of students to teachers and total enrollment.
The site also offers graduation and dropout rates, data on the racial an ethnic makeup of students and the percentage of teachers that have advanced degrees.
Beyond the school data, parents can find out how the nearby residents in the district stack up in terms of education level and income, among other details.
SchoolMatters boasts photos and parent reviews, although I couldn't find any images for any of the Los Angeles and Miami-area schools I checked.
The site features a star rating system for schools, but it's based on parent feedback, which was thin or unavailable for several schools I looked at.
Its school comparison tool comes in handy, though. The site allows users to generate side-by-side comparisons of up to three schools at once.
One drawback, SchoolMatters doesn't include private schools on its site.
That's not the case at GreatSchools.net, although listings for private schools often lack the same level of detail as public schools.
The Web site, run by not-for-profit Great Schools Inc., lets users search for schools by name or browse several in a city or district.
The company provides basic information on grade levels, as well as details on spending per student, teacher experience and types of extracurricular programs offered.
Great Schools also grades schools on a star system derived, in part, by comparing schools' scores on state standardized tests.
It also features parent feedback and online forums, where visitors can pose questions and discuss education issues.
Real estate search portal Zillow.com does a good job of helping visitors see where schools are located on interactive maps that also feature home values based on its own estimates.
The real estate site also lists school profiles from the National Center for Education Statistics and Education.com, which functions as an online magazine of sorts.
Education.com hosts stories on everything from child development to bullying, but also features a detailed catalog of public and private schools across the U.S.
Like the other sites, parents can find a trove of testing data, teacher information and a demographic overview of the school's student population.
Look here for other details, such as the percentage of students who were absent more than 21 days, classified as gifted, or speak limited English.
At another real estate-oriented site, NeighborhoodScout.com, users can search for the areas with the best schools according to a ranking system that the company touts as more accurate than simply comparing test results.
And the site also includes a tool to find neighborhoods that are best tailored to families with school-age children.
"We understand from our research ... that good schools are important, but they're not enough (to create) a family friendly neighborhood," says founder Andrew Schiller.
The company's family friendly formula favors neighborhoods with a high proportion of families with school-age kids, a high number of homeowners in single-family homes, low crime rate and a high percentage of adults with bachelor's degrees.
The site, which only features detailed information on public schools, offers a limited overview of schools for free. To view detailed information, parents must subscribe and pay from $14.99 to $29.99 a month.
While much of the data and ratings offered by these sites can be helpful, it's best to view them as merely a first step, not a substitute for visiting a school, meeting teachers and getting a feel for how your child would fit in, suggests Perry, of the education research group EdSource.
"All of these Web sites can help a parent surface what matters, can create some parameters around where to look, but are never enough to assure you that you've made the right choice for your child," she says. "Ultimately, (that's) the thing that helps a person make a good decision."