States Fall Short on School Data Transparency, Advocacy Group Says

Are states meeting ESSA’s requirements around data?
By Daarel Burnette II — April 03, 2019 7 min read
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Dozens of states are falling short in giving the public a clear window into the school data they’re required to collect and report under the Every Student Succeeds Act, an advocacy group says, including a breakout of test score data, achievement, and discipline disparities among vulnerable groups of students, and teacher quality information.

That verdict comes in a report issued April 3 by the Data Quality Campaign, which pushes for more transparent use of school and student data, and which looked at state school report cards for the 2017-18 school year, the most recent available.

“An alarmingly high number of parents have never looked at [states’ school] report cards, and it’s not because they don’t want that information,” said Paige Kowalski, the vice president of policy and advocacy for the organization. “It’s because they don’t know how to get it, and they’re not able to read it.”

The architects of ESSA sought to provide the public a much more comprehensive understanding of how America’s public schools perform by requiring states to include in their annual school report cards both inputs—such as how much states and districts spend on individual schools—and outputs like achievement gaps among a multitude of student subgroups.

That approach is a sharp break from the days of the No Child Left Behind Act, when states were only required to annually report disaggregated test scores and graduation rates.

But, the DQC’s “Show Me The Data” report says many states still aren’t complying with large swaths of ESSA’s reporting requirements. Beyond that, the report says, many report cards are especially hard to navigate and understand.

Among the report’s findings, as of the 2017-18 school year report cards:

  • Forty-two states failed to disaggregate achievement data for at least one federally required subgroup, such as racial groups, English-learners, those with disabilities, or military-connected students, which is required on the report cards.
  • Half of states don’t include suspension and expulsion data, even though the law requires them to post that information.
  • All but four states don’t include how many effective teachers work in schools, data they must collect but don’t have to post on their report cards.
  • Ten states that hold schools accountable for student test score growth don’t include that data on their report card, a federal requirement.
  • Only five states fully complied with a new requirement to break out school-by-school spending.

But the Council of Chief State School Officers said several conclusions in the report were outdated, inaccurate, and misleading.

“This year’s report, we don’t think, accurately captures what’s happening in states and with their report cards,” said Melissa McGrath, CCSSO’s chief of staff. “It’s a snapshot in time.”

Serving Parents

State education departments have said retrieving so much data and displaying it in a way that’s “easily accessible and user-friendly”—as the law requires—is expensive, technically complicated, and politically delicate.

In addition, emaciated state departments have had to navigate a slew of data-privacy laws that can curtail what states are allowed to display on their report cards.

Many state officials say they are gathering feedback and working to improve their report cards for the next rollout this fall.

“A lot of things that we had to punt [weren’t] just because it’s hard and we don’t want to do it, but because it takes time and resources,” said John Kraman, chief information officer for Mississippi’s department of education.

Because ESSA’s regulations were scrapped in 2017 by the Trump administration, states are not beholden to a deadline for when to comply with the report card portion of the law. The DQC also points out that several states have placed some data points on a separate report card used mostly by researchers and practitioners rather than the public, though that defeats the purpose of the law, they said.

The group is urging state lawmakers to set aside more funding for states to collect better data and redesign their school report cards.

Using the Information

School report cards are heavily relied upon by the real estate sales industry to set housing prices, politicians to determine policy initiatives, and parents to figure out which school to send their child to. There remains a large gap between the public’s perception of how America’s public schools perform and how they actually perform, according to several surveys and many advocates attribute that to the quality of states’ report cards.

In its first “Show Me the Data” report in 2016, which looked at state report cards when NCLB was in place, DQC found that more than a third of state departments buried their report cards in hard-to-find corners of their websites, that 10 states hadn’t for years updated test scores and graduation rates, and that only four states actually met No Child Left Behind reporting requirements, even though the law was passed 15 years prior.

ESSA, for advocates, practitioners, and state department officials alike, was seen as a reboot. The latest report looked at one elementary school and one high school in every state’s 2017-18 ESSA report card to evaluate how states stacked up on a set of self-selected metrics such as how user-friendly report cards are and how closely they align with ESSA’s requirements.

The DQC found that more than 31 states now have mobile-friendly report cards, 35 states offer downloadable data, and 42 states’ report cards now show up within the first three results in internet searches.

Kowalski said that states got especially creative with ways to display data.

Rhode Island’s department of education, for example, allows principals to highlight in a 350-word essay on school report cards what makes their school unique and share pictures of the school. Users can then use separate tabs to compile different data points about school climate and test scores.

“What I charged my team with is to make it super clean, think about voice and audience, and also make it [customizable] like Build-a-Bear,” said Ken Wagner, the commissioner of Rhode Island’s department of education.

The state also charts the schools that have mostly poor students but academically perform exceptionally well.

“We wanted to show that there are real, academically successful high-poverty schools with real principals,” Wagner said. “Anyone who tells you poverty is destiny is lying.”

Soft Spots

But DQC staff members were alarmed at how few data points states displayed on those user-friendly report cards, including for vulnerable groups of students, discipline data, student growth, and teacher effectiveness.

“This is information that communities are really hungry for, and we found it wasn’t published anywhere on the report card,” Kowalski said.

California in 2017 released a report card that got so much political backlash for being confusing and incomplete that Gov. Jerry Brown in his last budget proposal set aside more than $300,000 for the state’s education department to redesign it. The state got rid of its pie charts, included better explainers of how to navigate the report card, and ditched more than 80 percent of the pages that users have to click through to get to some data points.

“The dashboard is intended to be a tool that parents, teachers, and school leaders can use to begin conversation that we know is important: to improve all of our schools in California,” said Sara Pietrowski, a policy consultant for the department.

State departments have said that redesigning report cards was especially difficult. State lawmakers often wanted different data points highlighted than district officials and teacher groups did, and those requests sometimes conflicted with what parents groups wanted.

In some instances, such as with absenteeism rates and school spending amounts, states had to craft new definitions and then train district staff members on how to insert the data into sometimes-outdated data systems.

States have also struggled to compile data points from several different databases.

The office for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education, which compiles and reports a large portion of the data ESSA now requires states to report, released its data significantly late last year. States said much of that federal data was inaccurate and so they left it off their report cards.

CCSSO officials said the DQC marked states down for not reporting some things, such as teacher effectiveness, even though ESSA doesn’t require states to post that data on their report cards.

“I think all states are striving to make sure that they meet the requirements in the law and respond to the feedback they’re hearing from parents,” McGrath said. “Some states are going to take longer than other states.”

Mississippi’s department of education said that because of the delay of OCR data and challenges in compiling other data, it decided to come out with several versions of a redesigned report card. With every version, officials have been bombarded with feedback from parents, teachers, administrators, and lawmakers.

“We’re over-the-moon excited about how much feedback we’re getting from the field,” said Kraman, from the Mississippi education department. “We’re continuously driving to meet a variety of needs across the state. We want to meet them where they are.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 10, 2019 edition of Education Week as State ESSA Report Cards Fall Short, Asserts Data-Transparency Group


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