State report cards vastly improve, still can use work

State report cards vastly improve, still can use work

(District of Columbia) State report cards have improved since last year as policymakers have begun including more timely and relevant information, but more can be done to make school report cards easier to understand, a new study shows.

According to the non-profit Data Quality Campaign, nearly every state now includes student test results no older than the 2015-16 school year in their report cards, as well as information related to school climate, community engagement, and attendance and disciplinary rates, among other factors.

That said, many still rely heavily on jargon and acronyms that many families and other stakeholders don’t understand, while others make the report cards difficult to find online, which defeats the goal of increasing school accountability.

“Report cards are an important tool to get useful information into the hands of families so that they can be sure their children get the best possible education,” said John White, state superintendent of education in Louisiana–one of the states highlighted in the report as having improved its report card over the previous year.

“This is why we have spent the last year developing a brand new report card that not only contains better information than previous reports but also presents it in a way that is easy to use and understand,” White said in a statement. “This work is critical and all states have a unique opportunity to take action and ensure their report cards meet the needs of their communities as we’ve done in Louisiana.”

Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, states are required to produce report cards detailing school performance by including factors such as test scores, school safety and postsecondary enrollment, and using the results to outline new goals and plans to achieve them with the local community.

For any of the information to be useful, however, researchers at the Data Quality Campaign note that the report cards must be easy to find and easy to understand so that families and policymakers alike can use the results to make meaningful decisions to close achievement gaps and improve outcomes for all children.

Last year’s report from the DQC found a nearly a dozen states using data from as far back as the 2012-13 school year, only 13 that published student growth data, and almost half lacked an additional measure of school quality beyond test scores, such as campus safety or chronic absenteeism. Additionally, 45 states were found to have only produced the report cards in English without any resources to have them translated into other languages.

Although authors of the report concluded that every state had room for improvement, they noted that significant gains had been made over the previous year. Researchers found that today, 48 states and the District of Columbia are reporting student test results no older than the 2015-16 school year; with 18 states reporting data from the 2016-17 school year.

Additionally, 43 states now report school climate or other non-academic information; 28 states report a measure of student growth; and 22 include postsecondary enrollment data.

Still, report cards in many states are still relatively difficult to find online, and researchers found that even within the report card, information is often housed on different webpages. For instance, information about the school’s general profile and student performance on assessments may live in different reports with different links. And many–about 80 percent of states–still don’t translate report cards into other languages. Acronyms are also still prevalent throughout state report cards and often lack explanation, authors found.

While many states improved their school report card in the past year, researchers highlighted a few that others could look to as examples for increasing clarity and accessibility.

In Louisiana, users can find the report card for the school they are searching for in just three clicks. The state’s report card website appears first in the results of a basic internet search for the state’s school report card, and users do not have to decipher confusing report card titles or look across multiple pages to understand a school’s performance.

Both Wisconsin and New Mexico, meanwhile, make sure the report cards are easier for parents to understand. Rather than leading with large data tables, which are also included in the state’s report card, researchers note that Wisconsin leads with an at-a-glance picture of school quality that is easier to digest.

And New Mexico’s report cards feature clear, summative ratings on page one that allow users to quickly get a sense of how a school performs overall across a number of indicators, and explanations of each indicator are in plain language to help the user understand the value of the information. Researchers also found that Spanish language translations were easy to find.

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