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How Dreamschool Finder was created

The Globe developed Dreamschool Finder as an online tool to help parents locate the public school that best meets the educational needs of their children.

The tool allows parents to decide what factors are most important in the schools they want for their children.

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The online tool, found at www.boston.com/dreamschool, was developed with Jack Schneider, an assistant professor of education at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester; Anil Nathan, an assistant professor of economics at Holy Cross; and Alvin Chang, a freelance developer formerly at the Globe.

“We wanted to provide a more comprehensive view of schools,” said Schneider. “My belief is that every school can be good. That is not something necessarily reflected in raw test scores.”

The tool can help parents identify schools that align more with their values and for finding the unique strengths of different schools, he said.

The tool is built around six criteria for high schools, and four for middle and elementary schools. The data can be broken down across geographic lines, too — allowing users to search statewide, or north, south, and west of Boston. All the data come from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and are the most recent available.

Mathematics growth; English language arts growth: The Student Growth Percentile score compares a student’s performance versus other students in the state who performed similarly. Measuring growth rather than net scores theoretically makes it possible to compare schools with vastly different student populations.

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School climate: This looks at graduation rates, dropout rates, and the college ambitions of seniors. Graduation rates are 50 percent of the score; dropout rates, 20 percent; college ambition, 30 percent. Graduation from high school and intent to pursue a higher education — whether at a four- or two-year college — represent a significant commitment, and can signal student feeling about the importance of school work and broader community support for education.

College readiness: Sharing equal weight in this category are SAT writing scores and the percentage of Advanced Placement exam scores of 3 or higher. SAT writing and AP exam scores — particularly for subjects such as calculus BC or physics — have proven to be reliable predictors of college success in many studies.

School resources: This category looks at the amount of money spent per pupil by the school. Some research indicates that money may play a smaller role than the public imagines in determining success or failure of a student and their school. The data also give no indication how the money is spent. Nevertheless, it is clear that money matters in schooling, providing students with a range of opportunities that might otherwise be unavailable.

Diversity: A school’s racial mix is compared with a theoretical notion of “perfect diversity” (25 percent each of white, black, Latino/Hispanic, and other), and scored higher if closer to this point. Research indicates that a diverse mix of students can produce a range of positive outcomes for young people, such as cultural awareness and enhanced sense of openness.

“We’re trying to get a fair comparison of schools, not just based on obvious stats like graduation rates and SAT scores,” said Nathan.

No system is perfect. This online tool has flaws, too. For example, figures were not available for all schools in all categories. Schools are excluded from a particular ranking if they have no data; charter schools do not have data on per pupil spending, so are excluded if a Dreamschool user performs a search in that category. In such cases, users should not plug a percentage into categories that exclude systems they are interested in.

But the tool does offer parents a path to help them navigate the state’s many public schools, and point them to a school that offers the best academic opportunities for their children.

More details about how the tool was created can be found at www.boston.com/yourtown/dreamschool.

Matt Carroll can be reached at mcarroll@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globemattc.

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