The Data Quality Campaign, an organization dedicated to advocating for effective educational data policy and use, recently released its third comprehensive review of school report cards in all fifty states and D.C. This year’s is particularly important because it marks the first time that states are required to report information under ESSA requirements.

Overall, DQC finds that the majority of states have report card systems that are easier to find and use than in years past. Forty-two states have report cards that, because they appear within the top three results of an internet search, are considered easy to access. Report cards are also easier to use: Many families now access school information using mobile devices, so it’s good news that thirty-one states have a mobile-friendly version of their report cards. Thirty-five states also offer downloadable data, which allow families, policymakers, and analysts alike to dig deeper into the numbers.

DQC notes that several states have made significant changes to their systems. The places that boasted the biggest improvements focused on improving design, including more and better data and experimenting with different processes, such as partnering with external vendors. In general, three basic design approaches are used by states: 1) the one-stop shop, which organizes report card data in a single resource; 2) the parent-facing front door, a landing page for moms and dads that links to a separate, more wide-ranging data site; and 3) the data hub, which typically takes the form of a dashboard and allows users to explore data in different ways. Many states have also started providing helpful definitions for various technical terms and data elements. When this is done well, definitions are easy to understand and summarize why the data matters.

Despite these bright spots, there is still plenty of room for growth. According to DQC, many states need to work harder to make report cards easy for all citizens to understand. Only fifteen translate information into a language other than English, for example, and text is often written at a postsecondary reading level, which DQC measured by using hemingwayapp.com. Many report cards also lack critical information about student performance. A whopping forty-two states do not include disaggregated achievement data for at least one federally required subgroup, and twenty-one still don’t disaggregate data based on gender—a requirement that’s been in place for twenty years.

Many states also lack important non-academic data on school report cards. Over half exclude discipline data, such as suspensions and expulsions. Twenty-seven forgo postsecondary enrollment numbers, though several states do report that data in places other than school report cards. And twenty-six states lack data on the number of inexperienced teachers, teachers with emergency or provisional credentials, or educators who are teaching outside their field of expertise. 

A few states are singled out as making considerable progress since DQC’s last review. Mississippi, for instance, released a brand new design that is more comprehensive and easier to navigate than its previous iteration. Texas’s report cards offer parents a “show me how it works” feature that breaks down each indicator with simple illustrations and text explanations. And Pennsylvania includes data on the variety of pathways that students take after high school, including disaggregated military enlistment rates and the number of students who entered the state’s workforce.

Ohio isn’t listed as a state that’s made a lot of progress, but that’s because the Buckeye State is already well known for its top-notch report cards. Back in 2014, the Education Commission of the States asked researchers, parents, and experts to identify whether report cards in all fifty states were easy to find, easy to understand, and included all the essential indicators for measuring performance. Ohio earned nearly perfect scores and was “lauded for its graphics and for being easy to read and understand.” Analysis provided by DQC reinforces Ohio’s high marks. The state’s report cards are mobile-friendly, updated with the most recent test score data, downloadable, and available in languages other than English. Ohio also includes measures other than test scores, such as teacher effectiveness and postsecondary enrollment.

But like every state, Ohio has some room to grow. In DQC’s dataset, Ohio is identified as one of forty-two states that doesn’t include disaggregated achievement data for at least one of the federally required subgroups. In Ohio’s case, DQC claims it’s all the subgroups—including race and ethnicity, gender, students with disabilities, and economically disadvantaged students.

For the record, that’s not entirely accurate. It’s true that Ohio doesn’t disaggregate its achievement indicator by subgroup, but that’s because the state uses a separate indicator—the gap closing component—instead. Gap closing is a measure that reports how students in certain subgroups perform on state tests and their schools’ graduation rates compared to the collective performance of all students in the state. The component doesn’t count all of the federally required subgroups (migrant, homeless, and foster care students weren’t included on the most recent report card), but it does contain the majority.

The gap closing component brings Ohio into compliance with federal law. But DQC is onto something when they point out that disaggregating achievement data in a component that’s completely separate from the actual achievement indicator might make finding and understanding the data more difficult for families and the general public. In fact, many Ohioans have called gap closing the “least useful” report card measure because it’s so notoriously complicated.

DQC is right that parents and taxpayers need information about how subgroups are performing, and they’re right that data should be communicated simply and clearly. Forcing Ohioans to consider a measure that’s completely separate from the achievement component and hard to understand is a disservice. Overall, though, Ohioans should feel good about their state’s report card system. For the most part it’s clear, easy to understand, and easily accessible.

Policy Priority:
Jessica Poiner - Fordham

Jessica Poiner is a 2011 Teach For America corps member who worked as a high school English teacher in Memphis, Tennessee. While in Memphis, she taught for Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District. A native of Ohio, Jessica holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Baldwin-Wallace University. 

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