Special Report

A Heavy Lift to Make School Data Transparent—And Easy to Use

By Daarel Burnette II — April 02, 2019 6 min read
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One of the biggest critiques of the No Child Left Behind Act was that it forced states to impose penalties on schools based solely on test scores and high school graduation rates. Measures such as state takeover or replacing a school’s entire staff were simplistic or misguided, practitioners and policymakers argued—and, worse, created incentives to game the system.

Meanwhile, states dumped reams of sometimes-outdated test-score and graduation-rate data on their hard-to-navigate websites, making it almost impossible for teachers and principals to figure out what needed to be fixed and preventing parents from using the data as tools to push for change.

Enter the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The revised federal law requires states to use measures beyond just test scores and graduation rates to rate schools. And it requires states to publish on their annual report cards a range of data points about schools never before seen by the general public, including school spending amounts, teacher-pay averages, and academic and discipline disparities between student groups.

This has provided both an opportunity and a challenge for state education departments.

While states’ new accountability systems are much more comprehensive today, there’s still widespread disagreement about what data should be used to determine what makes for a high-quality school. And, for a variety of technical and logistical reasons, states have had a difficult time collecting and reporting accurate information about their schools in a way that’s digestible to the general public.

Because state officials still can’t agree on how to comply with new federal data requirements on measures beyond test scores, some state departments such as in Florida, Indiana, and Utah are still operating separate federal and state accountability systems, something federal lawmakers explicitly set out to avoid in their ESSA rewrite.

Other states such as Michigan and New Mexico, after political turnover, are attempting this year to scrap their accountability systems and replace them with new ones.

Work in Progress

It’s yet to be determined how parents and policymakers will use states’ redesigned report cards and data offerings to improve schools.

A recently released report by the Data Quality Campaign, a group that advocates for data transparency, shows the vast majority of states still have not complied with several of ESSA’s requirements, including disaggregating testing data by gender, reporting discipline data, and showing how many ineffective teachers are employed at schools.

“It is better,” Paige Kowalski, the executive vice president of the Data Quality Campaign, said about states’ new report cards. “States are listening, but to go in and ask people to do things like they’ve never done before is a lot. It’s not an excuse, but it does explain that even in states that have tried to tackle this, they’re not going to get all the way there because this is hard work.”

Kowalski said states have made a significant amount of progress since the early days of No Child Left Behind when they were first asked to collect and report to the general public data about their schools.

Almost every state now has built a longitudinal-data system that allows it to determine how students perform over time. And there’s more discussion in states about school performance.

But there’s plenty of ground to make up. By the time No Child Left Behind was retired in 2015, more than a third of state departments had buried their report cards in hard-to-find corners of their websites. Ten states hadn’t for years updated test scores and graduation rates. And only four actually met NCLB’s reporting requirements, even though the law was passed in 2001, according to a DQC analysis.

ESSA requires states to visualize in an “easily accessible and user-friendly” way more data points than were required under NCLB, including statistics on teacher and principal quality, school discipline rates, preschool, and Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate offerings—all broken out by more than 10 student subgroups.

Data Compliance

States have released redesigned school report cards that for the first time detail how districts are performing according to new metrics under the Every Student Succeeds Act. The Data Quality Campaign, an advocacy group, reviewed all 50 state report cards to determine how closely they are following the law and how digestible they are to the general public. Here are some of their findings:

15 States translate information on report cards into a language other than English, even though a significant portion of America’s parents don’t speak English.

42 States do not include disaggregated achievement data for at least one federally required subgroup. In addition, more than 21 states don’t disaggregate achievement data by gender.

12 States do not include student-growth data. Of these, 10 states are holding schools accountable for student growth but not including growth data in their school report cards.

26 States do not include discipline data such as suspensions and expulsions.

46 States do not include information about teacher effectiveness, a new federal requirement.

Source: Data Quality Campaign

It also requires states to add another element to their accountability systems.

State officials spent more than a year deciding which new elements to place in their revamped accountability systems and how to collect new required data elements.

Late last year, in the heat of the 2018 midterm elections, states began rolling out with great fanfare their new report cards on sleek, redesigned websites intended for easy use.

Rhode Island’s education department, after adopting Massachusetts’ test, used the unveiling of its report card to spark a statewide discussion about why the state’s school system lagged so far behind Massachusetts.

But there were plenty of hitches along the way.

Missouri delayed by more than six months the rollout of its new report card to give its education department time to properly assess the meaning of the fourth standardized test given in five years.

Tennessee deemed its entire grade-letter assessment of schools null after more than 1,400 tests in 39 districts were invalidated because of a testing glitch. (The state is shopping for a new test now.)

And South Carolina had to delay the release of its accountability system after realizing that AdvancED, a consulting and accreditation agency, botched the results of thousands of school climate surveys.

“We haven’t issued a rating in quite some time,” said Ryan Brown, a spokesman for South Carolina’s education department. “We want to show to the public what the expectations are at the state and federal level so it’s important that people buy into it. We have some who are accepting it and some who are still skeptical.”

School Spending Data

The most difficult new data element to comply with, states have said, is having to report school-by-school spending amounts. Figuring out how much districts spend on each school requires combing through hundreds of items districts buy and determining which are overhead costs, such as transportation, and which are classroom costs, such as teacher salaries.

Many district administrators fear that the display of school spending amounts will pit school board members and parent groups against each other and make the annual spring budgeting process especially contentious.

But many finance experts and civil rights advocates hope breaking out school spending amounts can highlight disparities among schools.

At least 12 states so far have published school spending amounts, according to Edunomics, a school finance think tank that’s working with state education department officials as they try to comply with the measure.

“One of the next goals is to get the data to be used,” said Marguerite Roza, the director of the Edunomics Lab and an associate professor of research at Georgetown University. “Right now, states have to check the box.”

With disagreements in states over the composition of their existing accountability systems and with the political turnover after the 2018 midterm elections, several states, including South Carolina and Wyoming are expected to ask the U.S. Department of Education for permission to make changes to their report cards this year.

After Democrats swept governorships in Michigan and New Mexico, both could potentially make sweeping changes to their accountability systems.

Texas will use some districts’ self-assessments as part of their final letter grade after superintendents complained about the states’ use of letter grades.

One district, in Alief, Texas, uses more than 28 indicators to grade its schools, indicative of a larger movement across the country of district officials, skeptical of state politicians, collecting their own data and evaluating their own schools.

Kowalski from DQC said that the first year of new state data collection and reporting is inevitably going to be contentious and messy. What’s important, she said, “is that state departments think of report cards as living documents and spend the next few months gathering feedback from the public.

“The data use drives data quality,” Kowalski said. “That’s the one truth in data. When you get data out to get reviewed and looked at, that’s when people start paying attention.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 03, 2019 edition of Education Week as A Heavy Lift to Make Data Transparent, Easy to Use


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