Data Fog

By Linda Jacobson — October 11, 2005 2 min read
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The document designed to inform California parents about the progress of their children’s schools—the School Accountability Report Card—is confusing, densely written, and hard even for people with advanced degrees to understand, says a study from the University of California, Los Angeles.

“What good is it to have a document where the intended beneficiaries of the information cannot make sense of what is being reported?” says the study, written by three law professors and released last month. “Running the school system without a useful and understandable SARC is like driving a $100,000 sports car with a broken speedometer, temperature gauge, and gas gauge.”

The researchers put the School Accountability Report Card, which was mandated in 1988 by voter-approved Proposition 98, through several commonly used tests designed to gauge readability, such as the Flesch Reading Ease Scale and the Dale-Chall formula.

The SARC was found to be harder to read than noneducation texts such as an information sheet from Merck & Co. Inc. for users of the drug Vioxx, an annual report to shareholders from Morgan Stanley, and the Internal Revenue Service’s instructions for Form 6251, which calculates the alternative minimum tax for individuals.

“Grading the Report Card: A Report on the Readability of the School Accountability Report Card (SARC)” is available from the Institute for Democracy, Education, & Access.

The report card was found to be even less readable than Proposition 98 itself. “It is rare that enabling legislation is less complicated than the resulting output from the government agency,” the authors write.

In surveys and focus groups, Rotary Club members and parents were also asked to examine the SARC. Their comments about the report card included: “Cannot reach any conclusion based on these tables.”

One sentence drawn from the report card—which covers more than a dozen topics—and cited in the study was: “For a school, the data reported are the percent of a school’s classes in core content areas not taught by NCLB compliant teachers.”

The authors recommend clearer definitions of technical terms, shorter sentences, and easy-to-read summaries of the data.

Bill Padia, the director of the California Department of Education’s policy and evaluation division, said, “There’s something for us to learn in this study,” adding that he would like the SARC to be “shorter and less complicated.” The problem, he said, is that the legislature mandates what must be included, and sections continue to be added. “It just grows by leaps and bounds,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the October 12, 2005 edition of Education Week


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