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Administrators Out of Tune With Parents on School Report Cards

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A new study on school report cards suggests that there is a gap between what parents want to know about schools and what school administrators think they should know.

The federally financed project is the first to take a close look at school report cards, which are increasingly being used by states and districts as a way to publicly report on the condition of schools and to make them more accountable to their local communities. Sometimes called "school profiles,'' the reports typically include statistical information on how students score on standardized tests, how many students come to school or drop out, and, occasionally, on the socioeconomic makeup of the student enrollment.

The project's researchers, under contract to Western Michigan University's Center for Research on Educational Accountability and Teacher Evaluation, studied more than 500 school report cards and interviewed 166 parents from school districts in Greensboro, N.C., and Sacramento, Calif., by telephone. They also talked with 16 school board members and eight local superintendents from the two states.

As part of the 15-month-long study, researchers also surveyed public-information officers for the nation's 14 largest school districts and members of the National Association of Test Directors.

Participants were asked to judge the importance of including 10 categories of information in school report cards.

The parents said all the information categories were important, but they were most interested in school safety and the amount of parental or community involvement--topics the researchers lumped under "school environment.''

They also wanted to know how well staffed the schools were and what kinds of programs and services were offered. They rated highly data on average class sizes and on teachers' years of training and experience.

Diverging Views

Parents did not place as much weight on standardized-test scores as school board members and superintendents thought they would.

Likewise, superintendents and testing directors tended to think that parents were less interested in information on facilities and finance than they were.

Those officials--as well as school board members--also considered staffing information less important than parents did.

The public-information officers surveyed, however, were in least agreement with parents. They differed with parents on seven of the 10 categories.

"I just don't think anyone has done this kind of study and asked parents what they wanted,'' said Richard M. Jaeger, the University of North Carolina professor who led the study.

He said school officials' and parents' views on school report cards also may diverge because local media reports tend to focus on standardized scores.

"School officials may have assumed that the media reflected parents,'' he said.

The study also determined that parents generally could use the information on report cards to accurately judge the quality of a school.

The researchers created 16 prototype report cards representing schools that were either "good,'' "consistently mediocre,'' "inconsistently mediocre,'' or "poor.''

Using only the factual information from the report cards, parents correctly identified the quality of the school they represented 77 percent of the time.

They tended to be most accurate with longer report cards that had narrative information as well as statistical tables.

Superintendents, however, correctly identified the quality of the schools only 63 percent of the time.

"It could be they were depending an awful lot on that standardized-testing information,'' Mr. Jaeger said.

Findings from the project were presented last month during a conference sponsored by the center in Gatlinburg, Tenn.

The center has compiled several reports on the study. For more information, write to CREATE, The Evaluation Center, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Mich. 49008-5178.

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