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States Missed Opportunity to Provide Key Data About Schools During Pandemic, Report Says

By Evie Blad — May 26, 2021 4 min read
Illustration of a woman on a laptop presenting data graphics to two women and one man.

Even as parents faced an unprecedented year of pandemic disruption, states missed opportunities to provide them with key data about their children’s schools, a new analysis says.

The Data Quality Campaign analyzed states’ school report cards for the 2019-20 school year in January and found that many failed to provide data about issues like chronic absenteeism and graduation rates for specific student groups.

Those gaps, coupled with the cancellation of federally mandated tests during COVID-19 closures, left the public with less information to help monitor how schools served students, said the organization, which advocates for effective collection and reporting of education data.

Those concerns come as states and schools report challenges defining and collecting statistics on issues like attendance and discipline during periods of remote learning.

“If you think about this time, of course it’s unprecedented,” said Jenn Bell-Ellwanger, president and CEO of the Data Quality Campaign. “The most important thing that states and districts could have been doing during this time is publicly share data that they do have.”

The annual report consistently identifies gaps in what states tell the public about individual schools. But those concerns are especially concerning this year, as states and districts chart recovery plans and seek public feedback on how to spend billions of dollars of relief funding, she said.

Among the report’s findings:

  • Just nine states reported data on chronic absenteeism for the 2019-20 school year, compared to 35 states the previous year. Many states use chronic absenteeism, which measures the number of students who miss large numbers of instructional days, as an indicator in their school accountability systems.
  • Twenty-four states did not provide all of the information about teachers they are federally required to collect. That includes data about inexperienced teachers, teachers with emergency or provisional credentials, or out-of-field teachers.
  • Sixteen states provided data about both the numbers of students who enrolled in advanced coursework, like Advanced Placement courses, and the numbers of students who completed it. Twenty-five states reported only completion data and 28 states reported only data on participation.

Missing data on specific student groups, but some signs of improvement

The Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal education law, requires schools to track academic performance for students by race and ethnicity. It also requires them to track performance of students in specific populations: students experiencing homelessness, students in foster care, students with disabilities, English-language learners, and students from low-income households.

Thirty-two states reported data on graduation rates for each of those specific populations, but the remaining states did not, the analysis found.

There were some signs of improvement, Bell-Ellwanger noted. While 19 states reported school-level, per-pupil spending data the previous year, that number rose to 36 states in 2019-20, the report found. That federally required data was designed to give the public insight into how resources are targeted within states and districts.

The report also found increases in state report cards that include data on postsecondary enrollment, military enlistment, and career and technical programs.

Complications reporting and collecting data during pandemic

Some states that didn’t report specific information on their school report cards may have published it elsewhere, Bell-Ellwanger acknowledged. But school-level report cards are designed to serve as an accessible “one-stop shop” for information about a school, she said.

The pandemic also created difficulties collecting consistent and reliable data. Schools scrambled to determine what counted as a student absence in remote learning and how to report that information alongside in-person attendance when students switched between modes of instruction. As Education Week has reported, schools have also tackled questions about how to define and measure disciplinary infractions and other indicators when a student is learning from home.

These concerns were particularly pressing in 2019-20, the year documented in the analysis, as schools rushed into unanticipated massive closures without a clear timeline for when they would return. Acknowledging those challenges, federal officials allowed states to cancel standardized tests and delayed collection of federal education civil rights data for a year.

But incomplete or imperfect data should have still been included on school report cards with appropriate context, Bell-Ellwanger said. For example, schools could have stipulated that data on attendance was collected before school shutdowns. That would have allowed readers to understand the data’s limits while also learning as much as they could about how schools operated, she said.

The report spotlighted a few examples of adding context: Iowa’s school report cards included a chart describing how COVID-19 affected each indicator, and Pennsylvania used symbols to note when data points were adapted to reflect pandemic interruptions.

And North Dakota provided additional data about the pandemic, including information about how many students were learning remotely and each school’s health and instructional plans, the report found.

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