ESSA Brings User-Friendly Makeover of State Report Cards

By Daarel Burnette II — October 20, 2017 6 min read
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Consumers have long slapped state-issued school report cards with a failing grade. Parents and statisticians alike have lodged complaints about their dizzying, colorless rows of data punctuated with jargon, clauses, and meaningless explainers.

Now, those much agonized-over and politically fraught web portals for conveying how schools stack up are set for a head-to-toe makeover, both in how they look and the information they provide.

The Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to visualize in an “easily accessible and user-friendly” way plenty more data points than was required under No Child Left Behind, including school-by-school spending, stats on teacher and principal quality, school discipline rates, and preschool, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate offerings—all broken out by more than 10 student subgroups.

In all, states will have to shove into its report card an estimated 2,107 data points about its public school system, the Council of Chief State School Officers predicts.

New ESSA Requirements

The Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to create and publish annual report cards that include a wealth of data broken out by student racial and economic subgroups and, for the first time, for military, foster, and homeless students. Among the key elements:

• A description of the state’s accountability system and a definition of its indicators and ranking methodology.

• Where schools rank on the state’s accountability system.

• A breakdown for different types of students of schools’ standardized test scores and a cross-tabulation of student data.

• The number of inexperienced, ineffective, and out-of-field principals and teachers.

• Graduation rates

• Disciplinary data including student arrest rates, out-of-school and in-school suspensions, and incidences of violence, including violence and harassment.

• The state’s results and ranking on the National Assessment of Educational Progress compared with the national average.

• The number and percentage of students enrolled in preschool programs, Advanced Placement courses, and International Baccalaureate courses.

• The per-pupil spending rates by school, with a breakdown of “personnel” versus “non-personnel” costs and how much of that money came from the local, state, and federal government.

Source: Council of Chief State School Officers

It’s an effort to break away from test dependency, paint a more “holistic” view of schools and jolt local communities into adressing disparities and lagging results.

But how to organize and visually display that taxonomy of school success on departments’ websites has sparked a wide-ranging debate over the politics of language, the explicit and implicit meanings of color shades, and what parents want—versus what they need—to know about their local schools.

“People were hurt that the emphasis on school success [under NCLB] was based on a single end-of-the-year test score,” said Brennan McMahon Parton, the director of policy and advocacy for the Data Quality Campaign. “Now, under ESSA, there’s a requirement for painting a much bigger picture. But this is a real test of prioritization. As a state, you’re saying, ‘here’s what our priorities are and here’s how schools are doing based on those priorities. We value and trust this information because we’re making it available to you.”

State report cards have long been described by parents and educators alike as clunky, confusing and close to impossible to navigate.

Transparency Builds Trust

A 2016 study by the Data Quality Campaign found that more than a third of state departments buried their report cards in hard-to-find corners of their websites, 10 states hadn’t for years updated test scores and graduation rates, and only four states actually met No Child Left Behind reporting requirements, even though the law was passed 15 years prior.

“This lack of transparency breeds mistrust between families and the education systems serving their children,” the organization concluded.

State Report Cards


Georgia plans to revamp its state report card to include baseline information (with no glossary or explanation of scores) and then a series of tabs to direct consumers to more in-depth data. Its prior report card was criticized for being cluttered, clunky, and hard to understand. Interact with the image below to see key factors.

Enlarge this image.


The state’s redesigned report, like those in many states, is using a dashboard approach to display school quality. Interact with the image below to see key factors. California does not provide an overall rating.

Enlarge this image.

In recent years, startups, local school districts, and companies like Great Schools have replaced state departments’ report cards, relying on their own data and ranking methodology. That’s helped worsen a gap between parents’ perceptions of their local schools’ performance and how schools actually perform in states’ accountability systems.

While a third of America’s students meet state reading and math standards, 90 percent of parents think their child is doing perfectly fine, according to a survey conducted by Learning Heroes.

Community members are sometimes baffled when the state comes in to take over an academically failing school.

“If a parent believes that everything is humming along and going well, and they don’t have very specific information of where their child’s or school’s needs are, they’re not taking actions most needed because they don’t know what problem needs to be solved,” said Bibb Hubbard, the founder and president of Learning Heroes, a nonprofit that consults with states to develop more parent-friendly report cards.

Redesigning report cards is one of the most laborious and tricky tasks under ESSA. States must come up with common definitions for things such as absenteeism and school spending, figure out a way to collect all the new data from its districts, and, most politically vexing, design a way to publicly display all that data in digestible chunks on their (sometimes outdated) websites.

State departments and their boards in the coming months will be tugged in several different directions by business leaders, politicians, and education advocates on what to highlight on report cards and how to highlight it.

Even among parents, the primary report card consumers, needs vary depending on where they live and what they’re looking for.

“It’s as much politics as it is data availability,” said David Stewart, the founder of Tembo, which has been hired to redesign several states’ report cards, and the former school accountability director of New York City’s Department of Education. “How much information do you want to allow parents to know and how refined do you want that information to be?”

State departments this fall have launched statewide tours to survey the public and test different design types, and most plan to release redesigned report cards in late 2018 or the spring of 2019.

Many departments are attempting to strip from their report cards the jargon that has long confused parents (does school climate refer to the discipline or temperature in the school?).

At least four states won’t come up with single scores for their schools, allowing the public to draw their own conclusions of school quality using an array of information on the report cards.

And the majority of states indicated in their ESSA plan that they will use a “dashboard” to display school success.

Similar to the dashboard of a car, the style of reporting categorizes indicators of success and lets users dive more deeply into areas they’re interested in.

But critics say this style is confusing to parents.

Twelve states will create letter grades calculated with lots of data inputs and a weighted formula.

Detractors say that style is oversimplistic.

A handful of states, including California, Louisiana, Georgia, and Nevada have already redesigned their report cards or plan on launching them in the coming weeks.

See Also

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Those states’ report cards are much more nimble than their previous ones, with spaced out columns, tabs, filters and pie charts; a sort of choose-your-own venture display style. Schools can be compared to other schools with similar demographics or to a states’ most successful schools.

In some states, new report card designs have been highly controversial.

The Los Angeles Times’ editorial board referred to California’s redesigned report card as an “indecipherable” and a “color-in-the-blank chart.”

State board chair Michael Kirst said he was pleased with the outcome.

“I expected a lot of controversy and we got it,” he said.

Terri Hodges, Delaware’s PTA President said their group got so frustrated with the state’s old report card they invited Great Schools to the PTA’s annual conference to help parents learn how to use the Great Schools report card instead.

The state’s department of education has held a series of meetings in the past few weeks asking the public what they’d like to see in the new report card.

“We’ve seen so many initiatives that have really been nothing more than attempts to label and define our schools, casting most of them in a negative light,” Hodges said. “If this is done correctly, this can be a fantastic opportunity for Delaware to guide the conversation.”

Louisiana’s department of education will release its redesigned report card, funded by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, next month. The redesign process took more than a year and a half and involved extensive debates over how to display achievement gaps between racial groups, which shades of orange, blue, and red to use for the state’s letter grades and whether to prioritize student progress over performance.

“Report cards are only as good as the conversations that go along with them,” said Annie Morrison, the state’s director of educator communications. “We realize, we’re releasing this great new shiny new tool but unless we at the state level are ready to have conversations with leaders and advocates about what this data means, we can still keep parents in the dark.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 25, 2017 edition of Education Week as A New Look, Utility for State Report Cards


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