A Nonprofit’s Ambitious Initiative is Being Credited for Making Report Cards More User Friendly

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth and final installment of The Prime’s Decoding the Data series, which examines organizations that report assessment data in new and creative ways. The entire series can be viewed on New Meridian’s website.

Several years ago, a casual conversation among a handful of leaders at the Data Quality Campaign (DQC) led to a vexing question: if a parent were interested in accessing their state’s K-12 report card, how difficult would it be to find online?

Within a matter of days, officials at DQC resolved to answer the question. With a team of seasoned researchers, they embarked on a 50-state audit of education department websites. What they found was shocking. “We found that, at their worst, it took 32 website clicks to find a state’s report card,” said Jennifer Bell-Ellwanger, the President and CEO of the Washington-based nonprofit.

What began as a mere curiosity, eventually evolved into the highly influential national project called Show Me the Data, which has now expanded to include Puerto Rico, in addition to the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Observers say DQC’s efforts are fueling a promising trend among states toward producing report cards that are more accessible and understandable.

When it was launched 15 years ago, Data Quality Campaign was on the vanguard of emerging efforts to ensure that education data can be easily understood by parents, teachers, educators, and policy makers, and used to inform decisions to improve success. Its efforts are providing actionable information that can be used to guide improvements throughout the education system.

Show Me the Data

Last month, DQC released results of its third annual Show Me the Data initiative. The group spent an hour per report card analyzing 114 separate data points.

“Parents and the public don’t have an hour to search for and look through their state’s report card. It’s far more time than a busy parent has for what can sometimes be a frustrating scavenger hunt,” said Bell-Ellwanger. “States have an obligation to make this information not only public, but also easily understandable.”

Bell-Ellwanger says enactment of the Every Student Succeed Act (ESSA), a landmark education law that returned sweeping new accountability authority to the states, motivated states to change the way they think about the value of report cards. Many states have invested significant resources into designing more user-friendly report cards with input from stakeholders. As a result, report cards are generally much easier to find and use than they were in the past.

Still, findings uncovered by the Show Me the Data campaign suggest that while report cards have generally become easier to find and use, too many remain difficult to understand.

“We often ask stakeholders to complete our scavenger hunt, which asks the reader to find a state’s report card and answer questions about the available information,” says Bell-Ellwanger. “Each time we do it, participants realize how hard report cards can be to find, and how some of the information can often be missing or buried in the document. Coupled with our Show Me the Data report, this scavenger hunt helps stakeholders realize that there’s something not quite right there and start to think about how it can be fixed.”

In its analysis, DQC found that a significant amount of relevant student data – data required under ESSA to be reported to the Department of Education – isn’t currently included in state report cards, leaving parents and other education stakeholders feeling less-than-empowered:

— 41 states do not include disaggregated achievement data for at least one federally required subgroup (like gender or students experiencing homelessness).

— 26 states do not include discipline data.

— 25 states do not include required data on the number of inexperienced teachers, teachers with emergency or provisional credentials, or out-of-field teachers.

— 46 states do not include information about teacher effectiveness.

Despite the strides that have been made, many states continue to omit other significant data that is important to parents, according to DQC:

— Only 26 states included summative ratings (g. A-F grade, five-star, 100-point, or similar) on report cards, despite the fact that most states are reporting this valuable data to federal authorities. Roughly 90 percent of parents report that summative ratings help them make decisions about their child’s education.

— 48 states are using a growth measure in their accountability system, but 10 of those states do not include student growth data on their report card.

— 27 states still do not include postsecondary enrollment data on their report card, even though that data is reported elsewhere.

’51 Good Report Cards’

Bell-Ellwanger says that states with the best report cards have a fundamental understanding that good data can, in fact, drive improvements in outcomes, but the promise of data is predicated on support from parents and stakeholders.

“States with the most successful report cards have a clear theory of action, and states have been intentional about what information its report card is providing and why,” says Bell-Ellwanger. “States that have focused solely on compliance with ESSA may have also shown improvement, but those report cards may not necessarily be the best in class.”

Ultimately, the responsibility for producing better report cards falls on the states, but observers say that task becomes eminently more achievable when parents, advocacy groups, and community stakeholders have buy-in. That, says, Bell-Ellwanger, requires access to full and complete data that is decipherable and comprehendible.

“Our goal is 51 good report cards for communities across the country,” says Bell-Ellwanger. “It takes critical friends like state advocates, and parents and community members, to make sure that these communities know the information is available and are able to have a conversation about what it means.”