How good are state report cards?

The Data Quality Campaign (DQC) recently released its analysis of state report cards—the annual summations of student and school achievement data that states are required to make available to the public under the Every Student Succeeds Act and, previously, No Child Left Behind—to determine if they’re easy for parents and other community members to find and understand. The authors examined report cards in all fifty states and D.C. for content, presentation, accessibility, and clarity, using more than sixty data points all together.

Unsurprisingly, they found that most were too difficult to find and interpret. Nineteen states maintain labyrinthine department of education websites that require three or more clicks to arrive at the report card after a simple Google search. Once found, they often comprise confusing displays, organization, and jargon that make the information difficult to interpret. For example, across the fifty-one jurisdictions, authors found more than five terms that referred to students of low-income families.

Over a dozen were also out-of-date. Only four state report cards contained all the student performance data that was first required fifteen years ago under No Child Left Behind, and ten states’ latest assessment scores were from the 2012–13 or 2013–14 school year.

More specifically, twenty-three state reports failed to include school quality measures other than test scores, such as attendance or graduation rates. Thirty-eight omit student growth data, either because they don’t track them or don’t report them. And not a single one provided readers with school funding data.

On the bright side, some report cards, such as Ohio's or Washington, D.C.'s, were deemed to be of high quality and ought to serve as examples for other states. They provide valuable information with simple layouts and minimal text. And others, including Minnesota’s and Wisconsin’s, even contain interactive pages that allow users to compare data points and graphs.

Overall, however, the DQC asserts that the information provided by most state report cards is insufficient and suffer from a lack of transparency. They encourage states to seize the opportunity provided by the Every Student Succeeds Act to design more accessible and useful annual report cards that provide community members with the information needed to make important decisions and improvements. As we at Fordham have argued, easily interpretable data are crucial for those working to enact reform, ensure accountability, and provide all students with the education they need to succeed.

SOURCE: “Show Me the Data: State Report Cards Must Answer Questions and Inform Action,” The Data Quality Campaign (December 2016).

Irene Mone
Irene Mone is a Communications Intern at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.