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Analysis: State Education Report Cards Are Often Difficult to Find, Understand

When it comes to getting the right data into stakeholders' hands in a way that makes sense to them, states have their work cut out for them.

by Tanya Roscorla / December 1, 2016

The good news is that states post their education report cards online. The bad news? They're hard to find, and in many cases, they're difficult to analyze. That's what a Data Quality Campaign (DQC) analysis highlighted in a report released Thursday, Dec. 1. 

When the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act was law, states were required to report a variety of information about how well their students performed academically during the previous school year, including graduation rates, test performance level and schools that need improvement. They also needed to break down students into subgroups by gender, English proficiency and low-income status, among other areas. Now that the Every Student Succeeds Act has replaced NCLB, states also must break out results for students who are in foster care, are without a home and have with military connections.

"The entire theory of action for the Every Student Succeeds Act it seems to me is based on the notion that if policymakers and parents and stakeholders get the right data, get the right information, then that will lead them to make the best possible decisions about kids' education," said Kristen Amundson, executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education. "I think that's going to put new pressures on state departments of education as they communicate that data."

This summer, the campaign's staff searched online for state report cards and tracked the number of clicks it took to get to there, as well as how current the data was, whether it was available in multiple languages and whether it appeared to meet federal reporting requirements including the ones mentioned previously.

For 16 states, researchers could access the report with one click. Eighteen states took three or more clicks to get to their reports, including a record 10 for Mississippi. 

Once researchers found the reports, they didn't always have data from the previous school year. In fact, just six states had the 2015-16 data, and 10 states had 2012-13 or 2013-14 data as the most current. 

States have the capacity in their longitudinal data systems to collect all of this data, but it only makes a difference when residents can easily find it, understand it and use it to answer their questions, said Aimee Rogstad Guidera, president and CEO of the campaign.

"We spent 10 years at DQC encouraging people to build state data systems," she said. "All of that investment in infrastructure is a complete waste of time, energy and money if we don't actually have the information that's made possible by those data collection systems." 

When they do find the information, residents can't always easily understand or contextualize that data as it's presented. Some of the worst show spreadsheets with lots of numbers, according to the report, which also noted that some of the best include visual, interactive data representations that tell a story and allow users to customize the data displays.

Some of these high-quality report cards also include explanations of how the data can be used and what it really means. The campaign pointed to states such as Minnesota, Wisconsin and Kentucky as examples of places that have done report cards well.

Families that speak limited or no English would be out of luck in 45 states that just have English report cards and no option to translate them. 

As for federal reporting requirements, states appear to struggle meeting them, though the campaign cautioned that some of them could have received federal waivers to not report certain information. According to its analysis, just four states have met all the federal requirements under No Child Left Behind, despite having 15 years to do so. And they have a ways to go to meet the new reporting requirements under the recent Every Student Succeeds Act that replaces it.

One of the major problems is that many states have been in compliance mode for a long time.

"Our leaders need to prioritize meeting the information needs of everybody in the state who has a stake in education, and not simply to check the box that this federal requirement is completed," said former North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue. "This data should be the guts if you will about what's going on in schools." 

Since Stephen Pruitt became Kentucky's education commissioner in 2015, state leaders have been asking in focus groups and surveys what data their residents need and how their Web experience went when they looked at the data  In fact, he calls these residents "shareholders" rather than "stakeholders" because they are invested in this issue. What he's hearing in town halls and elsewhere is that people want more data rather than less, they want something simple to understand and they want to see what goes into numbers like a school's score. 

"There's really sort of an insatiable need out there on the behalf of communities and shareholders in general because the more you give them, the more they want," Pruitt said.

Ultimately it's going to take lots of different people working together to make better state report cards, including the governor's office, the state board of education, legislators, community members, business leaders, education leaders and parents, said Rogstad Guidera. And that work starts with a few questions: What data do our fellow citizens need? And how can we get it to them in the right format and in a way that answers big questions about how we're serving students academically?

In an October meeting, the Data Quality Campaign shared what it found with 50 policymakers at the legislative, gubernatorial, state board, state school superintendent and education commissioner levels. They also led them on a scavenger hunt that's posted on the report website to see if they could find information to key questions about student performance on their states' websites. The result of the meeting and hunt, Rogstad Guidera said, is that many of them went back to their states and changed the way they display education data.

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