Karen Stokes knows just what to do with the latest public school test scores showing big gains in Baltimore.
"If the school improves, the neighborhood improves. And your real estate values will improve," said Stokes, executive director of the Greater Homewood Community Corp., a nonprofit organization working in the north-central part of the city where schools are improving. "Even if you have no children in the school ... what happens in your local school really does matter."
Standardized tests such as the fresh batch of Maryland School Assessment results might be intended to measure how much students are learning, but their influence ripples beyond the classroom. Superintendents use good scores as ammunition to justify their budgets. Business leaders pore over test results to see if students are picking up enough science and math. And many parents decide where to move their families based on scores, with test rankings shaping word-of-mouth about which schools are best.
Test scores are often the first thing homebuyers research if they're relocating from out of state, said Sue Hemmerly, a real estate agent at Long & Foster in Timonium. She's been in the business for 27 years and remembers when relocating families had to rely on scores clipped out of newspapers and mailed to them by their agents. Now prospective buyers get statistics online, often before they've called her.
"They come in with very exact ideas of what school they want," Hemmerly said.
Agents say they're hesitant to talk about schools to clients for fear of running afoul of the federal fair-housing law, which bans steering based on such factors as race and gender. That increases buyers' reliance on test scores, because for out-of-towners it's one of the few easily available indicators of school quality.
Eric Schwartz, an appraiser with A&E; Appraisal Services Inc., says his Glen Burnie house would be worth at least $25,000 more if it were just a few miles away in Severna Park with its high-scoring schools. He has empirical evidence to back him up: The builder put identical models in both places. "I couldn't afford to live in the Severna Park system, so I bought where I could afford," said Schwartz, 53. His daughter and son-in-law, who live nearby and have three young children, are already thinking about moving in a few years into "what they consider a better school district," he said.
The Maryland School Assessment results released last week, measuring student performance in third through eighth grades, showed a continuation of the steady gains made by state students over the years.
Baltimore elementary school students outscored peers in Prince George's and Dorchester counties in the latest tests - rising above a last-place ranking for the first time in at least a dozen years.
The scores are just one piece in the test-score equation, however. Many people look even more closely at high school performance, educators and business leaders say.
Mark Dressor, a parent of two who moved from Washington state last year, researched schools across the Baltimore metro area beforehand and decided the best bang for the buck - good test scores without the region's highest-priced homes - was in northern Baltimore County. His son spent last school year at Sparks Elementary and his daughter at Hereford High. The family, which rented while waiting for their house to sell in Washington, just bought in White Hall this month so they can remain in the Hereford system.
"We looked at the test scores from those schools, the awards ... any information we could get," Dressor said. "The bottom line for us is academics."
Test results affect other decisions, too.
Good scores help superintendents sell their budgets to skeptical county officials, said Carl Roberts, who heads an association of superintendents in the state. "It is a lot better to bargain from the power of positive results," Roberts said.
Bad scores can lead to staffing shake-ups, defensive explanations from administrators and, in the most severe cases, restructuring required by federal law. Baltimore's gains this year freed it from a state "corrective action" designation.
School performance was part of the quality-of-life argument state leaders made in persuading the federal government to send thousands of out-of-state jobs to Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County and Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County, said Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger.
And businesses dissect test results to see if schools are teaching the math and science skills students will need in the increasingly high-tech economy.
"We get calls from companies that are coming to Maryland, and they want to know where the data is housed," said June Streckfus, executive director of the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education, a coalition of 100 business leaders. "Decisions are made about where to move, not the company as much, but the employees who are working for the company. ... It does affect where people choose to live."
True, says Donald Haurin, an economics professor at Ohio State University who has co-written three studies about test scores and home values. What he found in Ohio is that scores affected home prices more than parks, public services or any other community amenity. Homes were worth as much as 15 percent more in high-performing school districts than in low-performing ones, he said.
"It's not necessarily saying if you've got high test scores, your house values will go up," he added. "If yours are higher than alternative places where people could live, then that will be reflected in house values."
Mike Sloan, an agent with the Pat Hiban Real Estate Group at Keller Williams Crossroads in Ellicott City, said schools are a key reason people move to education-obsessed Howard County. People moving in from outside the county are often satisfied to be anywhere in the school system, he said, but parents looking to move from one Howard home to another are "much more picky."
"The two biggest things we hear all the time is 'I want to be in River Hill High School or Centennial High School,' " Sloan said.
He thinks the desire to live in a community with excellent test scores played a role - if a small one - in the homebuying frenzy that pushed prices skyward earlier in the decade. When prices were accelerating, "people were willing to overpay" to be able to send their children to River Hill or Centennial, Sloan said.
"They believed that appreciation would continue," he said.
Community revitalization activists in Baltimore hope that schools, one factor in the years of outward movement to the suburbs, will now help housing values in city neighborhoods, too. The Homewood organization has worked for years with Medfield Heights Elementary and other local schools as a way to strengthen neighborhoods - and this year Medfield's pass rate on the state exam rose to 94 percent.
Mark Sissman, president of Healthy Neighborhoods Inc. in Baltimore, thinks test scores at some city schools could be a reason to move in - or at least offer a counter-argument to families planning to leave once their children hit school age.
"There are schools and neighborhoods here that they ought to consider," he said. "And you ought to believe we'll be promoting like crazy."