The federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act requires that all states publish an annual report card for each school in the state. But according to research from the Education Commission of the States and the Foundation for Excellence in Education (ExcelinEd), many of today’s report cards are inaccessible and confusing for parents and other stakeholders.

“The law requires every school in each state to release a report with a variety of different types of demographic and student outcome data,” said John Bailey, vice president of Policy for ExcelinEd, an education advocacy organization founded by Gov. Jeb Bush. “What we noticed in the research we conducted was that states are good at the technical aspects of calculating the data, but the way that data is released to parents and the public is often through non-intuitive, complex and confusing websites that contain lots of numbers and jargon, but very little context.”

While new standards, better assessments, the ability to measure growth, and innovative learning models are providing growing amounts of high-quality student and school performance data, parents often lack access to that data. And improving access to the data has the potential to help parents choose among an increasing array of educational options for their children.  

“State governments have a lot of expertise when it comes to calculating different data elements, but their weak spot is how to display that and make it easy for the public to understand,” said Bailey. “That is so critical, because numbers by themselves aren’t really information; you need to make sure it’s intuitive and easy to understand.”

In response, ExcelinEd recently challenged designers from across the U.S. to come up with something better. The My School Information Design Challenge was launched last September with the premise that parents expect and deserve a user-friendly experience when reviewing information about their child’s school. The competition offered prizes totaling up to $35,000 for designers who employed the latest strategies in data visualization to effectively reimagine the appearance, presentation and usability of school report cards.

“We thought this was a good way to engage with the design community and folks that are skilled at the way you visualize data and trends,” said Bailey. “So we invited the design community to reimagine how this data could be presented to make it more understandable.”

Designers were asked to submit a presentation showcasing a redesigned school report card using a sample data set. Eligible design entries were required to include improvements to the visualization of information in a school report card; innovative ways to give parents intuitive, easy-to-understand and actionable school performance information; and a design that would increase the use and accessibility of school report cards by leveraging Web and mobile applications.

“We were thrilled with the results,” said Bailey. “It proved to be a really effective way to bring in people that otherwise might not engage to help solve a problem. As much as this was about reimagining report cards, it was also about testing out this kind of approach and whether or not it could help us bring in expertise normally not available.”

Bailey said everyone from freelance designers to professionals and nonprofits participated. 

“That’s the whole purpose of this type of competition,” he said. “With RFPs, you often get the same sort of people responding each time, but with a prize-based competition, its wide open.”

Winners were announced last December, and on Feb. 26, ExcelinEd released a findings brief titled Building State Capacity for Powerful School Information. The findings report not only reviews the research, recaps the submissions and features winning designs, but also provides a road map for helping states improve their own report cards by leveraging some of the winning designs. One of the rules of the My School Information Design Challenge was that designers had to submit their design under the creative common license so that states can then easily adopt them, or elements of them. 

Bailey said a number of the competitors are already talking to states about adopting their winning designs, and ExcelinEd advocates across the U.S. are currently sharing winning designs with various states and helping them think through how to proceed.

“The onus is now on states to take the first steps toward developing the next generation of school report cards,” he said.