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State Report Cards: Keep Them Simple So Parents and Educators Can Use Them

Parents and educators need clear information on state report cards so they can use them to help students progress.

Article by William McKenzie April 23, 2019 //   5 minute read

The Data Quality Campaign just finished its 2019 review of the way states evaluate the work of their schools and districts. These key findings could help more parents and educators understand what is going on in their classrooms and communities: 

  • Report cards are generally easier to find on the internet. That is progress since an earlier Data Quality Campaign/Harris Poll survey found that 40 percent of parents did not even know their state issued a report card. What’s more, 32 percent did not know where to find them.
  • Greater accessibility thru mobile devices and downloadable PDFs make report cards easier to use. To their credit, 31 states have formatted the cards for a mobile device or tablet.
  • States are improving the presentations of their evaluations. Virginia and Illinois are cited as examples of states providing a deeper understanding of the information on their report cards. (Being a Texan, I am biased but I like how the Texas Education Agency uses a video, podcast, blog, and PDF to explain the state’s new A-F rating system.) 

Still, states need to keep working on their report cards, especially when it comes to making the information clear and readable. For example: 

  • Most information on report cards is written on a postsecondary level. Forget understanding them if you lack 14 years or more of education.
  • Too few states interpret the results for those reading the report card.
  • Only 15 states use a language other than English in their reporting.
  • Forty one states lack information on at least one federally required subgroup, which means they may not be breaking data down according to categories like race, income, or gender. In fact, 21 states don’t break information down by gender.

A lack of clarity matters immensely. All the data in the world won’t matter if teachers and parents can’t understand the results. Otherwise, how are they going to act on the information? Elevating student achievement, after all, is the real reason to acquire data about classrooms. 

My colleague Anne Wicks and I repeatedly came across this problem in interviews with national, state, and local education leaders for our A Word series on school accountability. Lizzette Reynolds, former chief deputy commissioner for the Texas Education Agency, said she even had to ask the head of the agency’s assessment division a few years back to explain her daughter’s fifth-grade math test results. If a professional in the field doesn’t understand whether their student is meeting important standards, how on earth will the rest of us? 

To be sure, a tension exists between keeping accountability systems simple for the layperson to understand and providing enough metrics so students and teachers are not evaluated on a single data point. But you shouldn’t need a postsecondary education to understand what is being measured and why it matters. 

We also should think of presenting information in an English-plus way as a matter of national interest. English is how you progress in this country, so it should be the common tongue of all Americans. But we all have a stake in the success of the nation’s diverse student body. Many of our future leaders, problem-solvers, and innovators will arise out of that diversity, which is a reality in many states. 

The National Center for Education Statistics reports that more than 10 percent of the students in eight states come from homes where English is not the native language. In California and Texas, our two largest states, the figure is more than 15 percent. Parents with limited English proficiency will have a very hard time knowing what’s happening in their child’s school, much less be able to press for any intervention, if they can’t understand the evaluation. 

Failing to report the data by race, income, or gender and other categories is equally self-defeating, as well as downright retro. States have been required to report such data for most of the last two decades, thanks to the No Child Left Behind Act. The requirement to break data down by subgroups is intended to literally make sure no child is left behind. By highlighting gaps, students can get the supports they need to achieve at the proper grade level. 

The bottom line here is that states are making progress on their report cards, but they need to keep working on making data accessible and easy to understand. Jennifer Bell-Ellwanger, president and CEO of the Data Quality Campaign, has it right: “Most parents and community members aren’t policy wonks or data scientists – people need plain information that helps them take action and make decisions about their kids’ education.”

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