For nearly a decade, Louisiana has assigned letter grades to schools and school systems to focus educators on excellence for every child and to inform parents about school quality. But a recent survey by Louisiana State University indicated just one in ten residents and one in seven public school parents could correctly identify their local school district’s state-issued grade.

Louisiana families needed a more effective method for accessing school quality information. Past report cards were data-heavy and filled with eduwonk verbiage. Furthermore, the report cards could be hard to find in an online search and did not sufficiently help parents new to a community determine their school options.

In late 2017, the Louisiana Department of Education—at which I am the assistant superintendent for assessment, accountability, and analytics—changed this with the launch the parent-friendly Louisiana School Finder, a first-of-its-kind online reporting system that clearly communicates how well schools and early childhood centers are supporting students.

The state’s revamped report card system showcases many of the expected metrics: the school’s overall performance score and letter grade; assessment results and graduation rates; and new data on student subgroups, discipline and attendance, and the teaching staff. In subsequent years, the system will expand to include student growth measures and an interests and opportunities index indicating how schools fare in offering enriching activities to all students.

But how does Louisiana’s School Finder improve upon the typical report card practice among states?

1. Spans cradle to career. The new reporting system—for the first time in the state’s history—gives users information about all child care, pre-kindergarten, and Head Start sites, unifying early childhood information with K–12 and post-secondary education results. It is the only reporting system in the nation to provide this breadth of information in this format.

Similar to the school letter grades, Louisiana’s publicly-funded early childhood education sites receive an overall rating—Excellent, Proficient, Approaching Proficient, or Unsatisfactory—based on at least two annual classroom visits from trained observers. Early childhood educators are observed using a nationally-renowned tool called the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, or CLASS, which measures how well teachers interact with children to support child growth and development. Research finds that classrooms with higher CLASS ratings result in better prepared kindergartners.

In addition to the overall rating, the performance profiles present detailed research-backed indicators of early childhood classroom quality, such as teacher-to-student ratios, licensing and inspection results, and the quality of the curriculum.

2. Customizable to parents’ needs. It allows users to choose their own adventure. For the parent who wants information on their child’s current school, they simply enter the school name. For parents moving to a new community and assessing their school options, they can search by address or zip code and refine the search further based on school features. Say, for example, a parent is moving to a new area and knows that she wants her child to attend a high school that offers both band and Advanced Placement courses; she can easily tailor her search to identify one that fits the bill. Think Yelp, but for public education.

Once a school is selected, users can access a wealth of information, from business hours, to extracurriculars, to teacher certification statistics. For parents interested in more than one school option, the website allows parents to save their favorites and compare schools in a side-by-side view.

To further assist parents, a suite of animated videos is available to guide users through the measures of school quality and why they matter. And translations are available in three languages.

3. Built for families, by families. The online tool wasn’t built for education wonks and politicos; it was built to provide families with the information they needed to make informed decisions about their child’s education.

The Education Department spent more than a year on the development of the tool, collaborating with focus groups and partner organizations like Ed Navigator and Learning Heroes, which aim to help families and students achieve educational success. These critical partners helped ensure that Louisiana School Finder prioritizes the information that families most want and presents the information in easy-to-understand ways.  

The team examined, for example, how internal taxonomy like “student growth” and “school climate” could be misinterpreted, and opted for friendlier terms like “student progress” and “school environment.” Additionally, parents made requests for specific features in the site, like showing three-year trends for certain results and including the rating scale below each school’s performance score.

As other states rethink their own school report cards, a newly released case study by the Council for Chief State School Officers summarizes many of Louisiana’s learned lessons. Among the most valuable takeaways:

-Identify and engage one audience. A state must be exceedingly clear about the intended audience from the start, as educators report a desire for different data than parents. Louisiana made the purposeful choice to design the report card to reach parents and developed the tool with them in mind. Parent partners helped guide the inclusion of early childhood information, customizable features, and parent-focused language.

-Invest in technology. A state must have the technological capacity to build a user friendly report card system that moves beyond stagnant PDFs, dropdown lists, cryptic dashboards, or hard-to-find spreadsheets. Louisiana’s School Finder is built to keep all critical information in one mobile-friendly site so it’s accessible to all families, even those who don’t have easy access to a computer.

-Facilitate critical conversations. A state must not stop at the creation of a new reporting tool; it must support and facilitate conversations about gaps in school performance, examples of success, and efforts to sustain improvement. When Louisiana launched its School Finder, it also provided a toolkit of resources to help schools and early childhood centers engage parents about the new website. The toolkit included a customizable parent night presentation, a promotional flyer, and a suite of animated videos to help educate families on how the school performance scores and early childhood ratings are developed.

Family-friendly school report cards are only a starting place to ensuring high-quality schools. But when report cards easy to access and responsive to parent interests, they can serve as an empowering tool for those closest to children. States are uniquely positioned to meet this need, and the implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act offers a unique moment in time to achieve it.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Jessica Baghian is the assistant superintendent for assessment, accountability, and analytics for the Louisiana Department of Education.