School report cards don't matter if parents can't find them

The High Flyer (Blog Banner)-NAGC.pngNow that the Every Student Succeeds Act opens the door to new approaches, the education policy community is rightfully interested in helping states overhaul their school accountability systems. I co-authored Fordham’s contribution to the cause, High Stakes for High Achievers, which looks at ways that these systems can signal to schools that all students (including high-flying ones) matter. We weigh in on the use of proficiency rates (avoid!), growth models (yes!), and other mechanisms for making low-income high achievers more visible. Other groups are making proposals about the “other indicators of student success or school quality” allowed by ESSA (i.e., indicators other than test scores); debates are raging about whether states must issue “summative” ratings for schools or use a “dashboard” of data instead.

These discussions are all well and good, but they assume that school report cards and ratings still matter—that parents, taxpayers, real estate agents, and others will see them and respond in ways that will put heat on our system to improve.

We might want to question that assumption. Because if school report cards continue to serve as a lever for reform, people need to be able to find them, and understand them. That is too rarely the case today.

I first began compiling research for High Stakes for High Achievers last summer, having been tasked with finding examples of school report cards for each state and supporting information about their various indicators, weights, etc.

I expected that deciphering the complicated state formulas would take time. But what I found was far worse. Frankly, I was shocked by the challenge of simply navigating the majority of state websites. Convoluted language, outdated information, and a myriad of 404 error messages made many state education department websites feel more like rabbit holes.

In at least half of the states, simply finding a school’s report card took multiple clicks and several minutes—in 2016! Think about that. And trying to find the nitty-gritty details of how school grades were computed was even harder, often forcing me to spend hours poring over materials like state board meeting agendas and PowerPoint presentations. Research that should have been as easy as looking up a report card database and an accompanying explanatory document was almost never so simple.

If finding this information took serious time and due diligence on my part (a tech-savvy, college-educated think tank employee), one can only imagine how quickly a parent or other uninitiated individual might despair at trying to do the same. The formulae and corresponding report cards that rate school progress should be accessible to parents and others concerned with the status of educational progress in their states, districts, or neighborhood schools. Instead, some state websites are so obscure that parents and other stakeholders interested in learning more about education and accountability systems might feel too intimidated by the complexity of the task to even start. (Surely this is good news for GreatSchools, which offers school ratings that are easy to understand, if highly problematic.)

Let me suggest a few simple fixes for our friends at state departments of education:

  1. Finding school report cards shouldn’t take more than a couple of clicks. Education department homepages should have a direct link to a page that details their accountability system. From there, it should be obvious how to access the school report card database. Colorado does an excellent job at this.
  2. School report cards should be easily interpretable. Too often, report cards would use arbitrary symbols or colors to rate schools. Determining whether a rating was good or bad shouldn’t require additional digging to locate definitions or a key. A clean, detailed, aesthetically appealing report card, such as the one used in Ohio, was my favorite (and least common) type to stumble upon.
  3. Accountability formulae should be published on state education department websites! This was the most common and frustrating problem I ran into. There were many states that had their formulae buried in technical manuals (like this one from Arizona) or other documents that could be hundreds of pages long. It shouldn’t take an entire afternoon to figure out how much a state counts proficiency or growth when ranking a school’s performance.

Educational organizations such as the Data Quality Campaign have argued that it’s important for states to publicly report information that is “high-quality, timely, and useful” so that families and communities might become informed and “empowered partners in a child’s education journey.” If states leave these people in the dark, the task of demanding better and more rigorous forms of accountability becomes all the more difficult. This is particularly salient for parents of high-achieving students; our report found that overall, state accountability systems do a poor job encouraging schools to pay attention to these students. When it comes to accountability, knowledge is power. People outside of education departments should have access to this knowledge—and should have the option to use that power—to influence change within their school systems. 

Audrey Kim is a Policy and Staff Assistant at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and is a coauthor (with Michael J. Petrilli, David Griffith, and Brandon L. Wright) of High Stakes for High Achievers: State Accountability in the Age of ESSA.

The High Flyer is a unique collaboration between the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Our two organizations unite around common goals: to expand the public’s understanding of the needs of gifted and talented children, to increase public urgency to serve them, and to dispel common myths. The High Flyer and our other combined efforts are meant to lead the conversation and signal that all gifted and talented students matter.