School & District Management

Many State Report Cards Leave Parents in the Dark About School Achievement

By Sarah D. Sparks — December 01, 2016 3 min read
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Say you are a parent who is planning to move from Ohio to Delaware for a job, and you just have a few weeks to figure out where to live, find a house and move with your school age kids. How easy will it be to quickly compare schools and districts to find the ones that will best fit your family?

Even for a parent willing to buckle down with spreadsheets, it could be an uphill slog. While Ohio’s online district report cards, like the one excerpted above, include data on achievement and growth for different groups of students in a dashboard, Delaware, like many states, does not show students’ performance levels, graduation rates, teacher quality measures, or other data on its report cards, according to a new study by the Data Quality Campaign.

“As a nation, we have not yet prioritized getting this information into the hands of the people who need it to help them understand whether schools are serving all students well,” said Aimee Guidera, the president and chief executive officer of the campaign.

DQC analysts spent 100 hours last summer reviewing report cards from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, noting how difficult the report cards were to find, whether they included some information required by state and federal law, and how easy it would be for a parent or other layperson to understand.

“We found we were bogged down by clunky formats, obscure terms, and missing data,” Guidera said. “Overall, the experience of finding and interpreting these state report cards was confusing and frustrating. We’re passionate data geeks, and we couldn’t find this information.”

Only four states—Iowa, Nebraska, Virginia, and Washington—had report cards that included all the student performance information required under No Child Left Behind, the predecessor of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. Some states had data two or three school years out of date. Others did not provide school achievement data broken out by gender, race, poverty, or disability status. Only a handful of states provided information on school finances. And 45 states provided information only in English, with no support for other languages, even through free online translation tools.

Moreover, states often presented information in “rows of numbers and figures without any meaning,” or peppered the report cards with education jargon—like five different terms for low-income students.

Former North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue said she was “appalled” at how difficult the state report cards were to understand. “This data should be the guts if you will, of what’s going on in the schools,” she said. A state report card “doesn’t make a hill of beans’ difference if you put a lot old fancy charts with fancy words that parents can’t understand.”

Under both NCLB and the new ESSA federal laws, states are required to provide annual report cards on student performance in schools and districts, and the federal government has since provided grants to all states to develop longitudinal student data systems, in part to give parents and policymakers richer information about student achievement.

Yet more data being collected can actually make it harder for states to pool and prioritize the information parents most need, said Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt. “When you think about putting [report cards] together, it’s not as simple as just saying ‘We are going to list these things,” he said. “It’s easy to get into your bubble ... and say here are the things that are clearly important or compliant” without finding out the information parents and community members might be most interested in, like school finance or college-going rates of graduates.

Kentucky has moved beyond providing just a grade or score for each school. While it still provides overall rating, it helps parents dig into different elements that make up the score. “People want more rather than less,” Pruitt said. “People want to be able to still have a quick glance, but in that glance actually see what is making up that [school rating].”

Graphic: The screenshot shows an excerpt of one Ohio district report card. According to a new Data Quality Campaign study, the state was praised for providing school information in a format easy for parents to find and understand. (Ohio Department of Education)

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.