A feature purporting to rate schools from “best” to “poor” on a National Association of Realtors (NAR) web site visited by some 12 million prospective home buyers a year contained a “systematic mathematical error,” the web operators have acknowledged. The error is known to have impugned the quality of school districts in suburban Chicago, but it is unclear whether school systems elsewhere have been similarly affected.

Because the perceived quality of schools in a community has a significant impact on home sales and property values, the web site errors have outraged some Chicago-area Realtors and caused grave concerns among educators in several Chicago suburbs.

The web site, which NAR says is visited by about 30 percent of those buying homes nationwide, rated some Chicago-area school systems as “average” or “poor,” even though they deserved high ratings based on the criteria that were supposed to be used, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Such mistakes can have a devastating effect on local property markets, as school data are a key factor in many people’s decisions on where to buy a home, local real estate agents said.

The site’s operator, RealSelect Inc., acknowledged the mistakes and blamed them on “2001 Beyond,” the third-party provider who provided the data.

David Rosenblatt, vice president of RealSelect, told eSchool News the error occurred within a test site that was on the web for the express purpose of getting feedback from users.

“That information was up for a total of four days,” Rosenblatt said. “From the time we found out to the time it was corrected, only 24 hours had elapsed.”

With 95 percent of the available U.S. homes for sale on its site, Realtor.com is the largest real estate site in the country, according to Rosenblatt.

“Because of our role, we take the information on our site very seriously,” he said. “Ultimately, having the right information about schools is going to help our customers. We’re looking forward to partnering with the educational community” to make that happen.

The web site does indicate that the area containing the school-rating service is “experimental.” But that has not been sufficient to assuage educators’ concerns.

Evanston Township High School was one school initially rated “poor.” Kathy Miehls, director of public relations for the school, said school officials and local Realtors were furious about the mistake, according to AP.

“It’s pretty nasty to experiment with a school’s reputation,” said Miehls.

One local real estate agency, Coldwell Banker, is so angry about the mistake, said Miehls, that it is refusing to pay NAR’s annual dues.

Find a neighborhood

The feature in which the erroneous ratings were listed is called “Find a Neighborhood.” It’s been on the web site since October. The feature allows buyers to list such preferences as the quality of schools, income levels, crime rates, cultural amenities, and the average age of residents. The site then uses statistical criteria to identify a community that roughly matches the buyers’ preferences. Buyers can also request ratings for a particular zip code.

School systems are rated as “best,” “better,” “average,” “fair,” and “poor.” The scoring is a product of weighted averages of SAT and ACT results, the percentage of college-bound students and national merit finalists, and spending per student. The data are provided by a group called “2001 Beyond.”

As of mid-December, the web site contained a disclaimer, which reads in part:

“School data provided by 2001 Beyond. Information displayed is purely statistical. It is not guaranteed and should be independently verified for accuracy.”

2001 Beyond provides real estate agents and their customers with access to “The School Profiler,” a database of more 32,000 private and public schools in more than 65 major metropolitan markets, according to information from the company.

2001 Beyond, on its own web site, describes its mission as being “to provide internet families with accurate and comprehensive information on school districts (K-12) in the major metropolitan markets across the United States. Whether families are moving a short distance or across the country, the question always asked is, ‘How are the Schools?’

“The School Profile has over 200 unbiased facts about school districts that helps parents identify which school best meets their family’s educational needs. Each School Profile contains up to four (4) districts side-by-side for easy comparison.”

Evanston is not the only school district to complain about its rating. Other Illinois communities with high scholastic reputations, such as Oak Park and Palos Park, were rated only “average” by the site. After the Tribune questioned the ratings, the Oak Park and Palos Park school systems both were upgraded to the “best” category, according to AP.

Sue Hall, a real estate agent in the Wilmette, Ill., office of Koenig & Strey, said she is “livid” about the errors. She said the vast majority of people moving to the area from out of state check such information on the internet, “and frankly, they’re looking to eliminate communities.”

School officials are upset, insiders said, because districts such as Evanston and Oak Park include high numbers of minority students. That leads many parents to mistakenly assume that the schools are suffering from the low academic performance, school officials said–a misperception reinforced by Realtor.com’s web ratings.

Biased attitudes about schools with high minority enrollments is so prevalent in Evanston that the school system has a Realtor’s committee made up of representatives from neighborhood schools and local real estate agencies. For 10 years, the committee has been working to communicate the district’s achievements to potential home buyers, Miehls said.

An NAR association spokesman said those controlling the site are considering changing the school ratings system to one that uses numerical rankings based on the scoring of different communities.

In an address at the NAR convention Nov. 6-9, the association’s President-elect, Sharon A. Millett, gave nearly 17,000 conference-goers a briefing on the web site.

“In a year’s time, online traffic to Realtor.com has grown more than 500 percent,” Millett said. “We’re not the only real estate site on the internet, but our enormous resources and depth of knowledge make us the online favorite.”

According to web site usage statistics released by NAR, Realtor.com is visited by more than 1 million consumers each month and more than 33 million homes are currently viewed each month, up from 12 million recorded a little more than a year ago.

Realtor.com

http://new.realtor.com

National Association of Realtors

http://nar.realtor.com

2001 Beyond — The School Profile

http://www.2001beyond.com

Evanston Township High School

http://www.eths.k12.il.us