Corrected: After the report “Taking Root” went to press, new information became available. The online version of this report has been updated with the new information.
Education reformers hope that arming the public with knowledge about the strengths and weaknesses of schools will enable communities to work more effectively with the schools to improve results.
Toward that end, the No Child Left Behind law requires every district in the country receiving Title I money for disadvantaged children to provide a report card for each of its schools.
According to the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, approximately 92 percent of all districts receive basic grants under Title I. But the Education Week Research Center found that all states and the District of Columbia currently go beyond the NCLB requirement and provide report cards for every school, whether or not they are in a Title I district.
The federal law stipulates that the report cards must include information about teacher qualifications, including the percent of teachers with emergency or provisional licenses and the percent of classes taught by “highly qualified” teachers, as defined under the 3-year-old reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
The school report cards also must include high school graduation rates and student-performance data in reading/language arts and mathematics for both the overall student population and for such subgroups as children from racial and ethnic minorities and those who speak limited English.
The Education Week Research Center found that a large majority of states provide such disaggregated information about student performance on school report cards, but far fewer provide the required teacher-qualification information.
Forty-four states and the District of Columbia break down student-performance data for major racial and ethnic groups and for students with disabilities. But just 22 states include the percent of teachers with emergency or provisional licenses, and only 14 include the percent of classes taught by “highly qualified” teachers. Thirty-nine states provide graduation rates on school report cards, but only 20 pull out graduation rates for subgroups of students.
In addition to the NCLB-required components of the report cards, some states include additional information, such as data about school climate. Twenty-seven states give information that falls into the school safety category, such as the number of student suspensions or expulsions.
The way information is presented on school report cards is a critical issue.
Bill Jackson, the president of GreatSchools.net, a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco that provides online school profiles for all public schools in the country, reports that some states do not provide report cards that are easy for parents to understand.
“In our experience with parents, parents do not want rows and rows and columns and columns of data. That quickly becomes overwhelming,” he said.
The sheer number of report cards that exist for each school may also be confusing for the public. Nineteen states have more than one per school, and 16 states have separate report cards designed specifically to address the requirements of the federal law, according to an analysis conducted by the Education Week Research Center.
Mr. Jackson suggested that multiple report cards for each school may be a result of “a compliance mentality.” Some states seek to meet the report-card requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act without melding the federal requirements with their own systems. Mr. Jackson also noted that some states believe their own report cards provide a more complete and accurate picture of education.
“I think there might be an incentive, a desire, in some states to put most of the effort on publicizing their own view of the data,” he said, “rather than the NCLB picture.”
Another issue that the public must contend with is timeliness. The U.S. Department of Education wants report cards released as early as possible, so that schools have the information needed to improve, and so that parents are able to consider other educational options for their children. But as of early October, 20 states had not yet released school report cards with achievement data from the 2003-04 school year.