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States are making progress on data 'report cards,' but shortcomings are many

Analysis from the Data Quality Campaign shows reports bogged down by lack of clarity, accessibility and jargon.

Richard W. Walker
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Richard W. Walker

Richard W. Walker is a freelance writer based in Maryland who has been covering issues and trends in government and public sector technology for mo...

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The Data Quality Campaign’s latest analysis of the states’ federally required education “report cards” contains some good news about overall data-sharing habits — and some not-so-good news about the usability of that data.

DQC’s Show Me the Data 2017 analysis, released Wednesday, concluded that states have gotten better at providing more relevant and timely data, but many fall short when it comes to clarity, accessibility and completeness in their report cards.

The nonprofit found that states are “publishing more timely data and including more robust information” and that their assessment data was largely up to date, said Paige Kowalski, executive vice president of DQC, during a media conference call Tuesday. It's DQC's second annual review of the school performance reports of each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, which were required under the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act.

“States have begun the hard work of publishing information beyond test scores and other compliance data in an effort to provide a fuller picture of school quality,” Kowalski said.

She pointed out, for example, that 43 states report a measure of school climate, such as chronic absence, and 22 states are including postsecondary enrollment information, up from 17 schools earlier this year when DQC last did a scan of that data.

Despite some bright spots and promising practices, DQC’s analysis continues to reveal serious shortcomings in the report cards.

“To put it bluntly, navigating report cards is harder than it needs to be,” Kowalski said. “Our team members were bogged down by acronyms and obscure terms, and information was often scattered across different pages of the reports, making it difficult to know where to go and what information to use.”

She said that titles and descriptions were often “packed with jargon, obscuring what the data is actually showing and preventing meaningful use for anyone not familiar with education policy.”

Moreover, she said, average level of reading required to make sense of report cards was grade 15 — college-level reading. And only nine states are translating the report cards into other languages for residents who don't speak English.

“Report cards are a key means for states to communicate education goals, progress and school quality to broad audiences,” Kowalski said. “When you use jargon, write at a grade 15 level and speak only English, you’re missing a critical communication opportunity with some of your most important audiences.”

According to DQC, state report cards are an essential tool for determining if schools are serving all students equitably and help create a picture of overall school performance for parents, teachers, education leaders, policymakers, taxpayers and other stakeholders.

On the bright side, Kowalski said, “we know states are revising their report cards as we speak.”

DQC identified five states whose report cards stood out from the rest in terms of clarity, accessibility and innovative practices: Illinois, Virginia, New Mexico, Wisconsin and Louisiana.

Illinois included information about school culture and learning environment as well as data about teacher collaboration and family engagement, underscoring that multiple data points can supply a deeper understanding of what learning is like in every school.

Virginia includes such data discipline rates and postsecondary enrollment with explanations accompanying each indicator; New Mexico gives clear summaries of data, information in Spanish and an A through F rating for each school; Wisconsin identifies priorities for its schools, including student performance and growth; and Louisiana’s users can find information on a specific school in three clicks.

States have the building blocks in place to make their report cards more accessible and useful, DQC concluded. They can improve their report cards by simplifying language, cleaning up acronyms (and clearly explaining them), disaggregating data to shine a light on achievement gaps among students and using report cards to make state priorities clear.

“It’s critical that states take action this year to improve their report cards and make sure they meet the needs of their communities,” Kowalski said.

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Education IT News, Department of Education, Edtech, Higher Education, K-12, Policy, Data Quality Campaign, Report cards, post-secondary, Paige Kowalski, Wisconsin, New Mexico, Louisiana, Virginia, illinois

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