Analysis: New DQC Review Shows Most State School Report Cards Getting Easier to Access — but Too Few Go Far Enough in Giving Parents the Full Picture
Parents and communities have the right to receive clear and accurate information about the performance of their schools, and state report cards play a crucial role in providing this information. It is encouraging to see that states are committed to improving their report cards and have made progress, as highlighted in Show Me the Data, the third analysis of state report cards by the Data Quality Campaign. However, there is still work to be done to ensure that these resources are easily understandable and accessible.
For busy parents, it is impractical to spend hours searching for information about their children’s schools. Fortunately, the Data Quality Campaign has conducted an extensive review of state report cards to understand the range of information available to parents and the public. Our research team invested nearly an hour per state, examining 114 data elements for all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. We scrutinized one elementary and one high school report card from each state to gain a comprehensive understanding of the data provided.
Overall, our findings were promising, but there is room for improvement. The good news is that most state report cards are more accessible than ever before. In fact, 42 states’ report cards appear among the top three results in a simple internet search. Additionally, states are taking steps to ensure that these resources are user-friendly. Many states have developed mobile-friendly versions of their report cards that are compatible with smartphones and tablets (31 states), provided PDF versions for easy downloading and printing (30 states), and made downloadable data available for those who want to delve deeper into the numbers (35 states).
Despite these advancements, it is crucial for states to make the data easily comprehensible. Currently, a majority of report cards are written at a college reading level, which poses a challenge for parents and community members who are not well-versed in policy or data analysis. People need plain and straightforward information that empowers them to take action and make informed decisions about their children’s education.
Of particular concern is the inadequate reporting of how well schools are serving different student groups. Shockingly, 42 states fail to provide disaggregated achievement data for at least one federally required subgroup. For instance, 21 states do not break down data according to gender, despite it being a federal requirement since 2001. Without specific information on students segmented by gender, race/ethnicity, and other important characteristics, families and communities lack a comprehensive understanding of how all students are being served by their local schools. If this information is not readily available on state report cards, it becomes difficult to address educational inequities at both the school and state levels.
Nevertheless, there are a few states that are spearheading innovative approaches to report card design, ensuring that critical information is presented in a user-friendly format. Mississippi serves as an excellent example, as the state completely redesigned its report card last year to enhance navigability and comprehensiveness. The new design incorporates simple visuals that offer context to the data. Rhode Island’s report card design provides more and better data, including per-pupil expenditures, making it one of the five states to do so before it becomes federally mandated. Idaho’s report card now includes translations and performance data for new subgroups such as military-connected students, students in foster care, and students experiencing homelessness. Although these report cards are not flawless, they demonstrate that progress can be made from year to year.
No state has fully maximized its efforts to ensure that its report cards provide families and the public with the necessary information for a comprehensive understanding of student learning in their communities. However, the strides made by many states this year indicate a genuine commitment to service and transparency.
Now is not the time to slow down. States should prioritize improving the design of their report cards to make them more readable and understandable. They should incorporate more comprehensive and relevant data that provides context for student success. Furthermore, states should consider different approaches to redesign, whether through external consultants or leveraging in-house expertise. Leaders at all levels of state government should reflect on the effectiveness of their report cards and reinvest in practices that have proven to be successful. When families and communities have access to accurate information, they can make informed decisions that support the success of all students.
Jennifer Bell-Ellwanger serves as the president and CEO of the Data Quality Campaign. For more information about DQC’s analysis, including the full report and exemplary practices in various states, please visit the Show Me the Data page on DQC’s website.