Making School Performance Data Work for Families

With a swipe of our smart phone we can find the shortest route to a destination, track our heart rate, or choose a restaurant. But ask a parent to find some basic information about their child’s school and odds are they can’t. Without easily accessible information about the quality of local schools, families are left to make critical decisions about their child’s education in the dark.

This is especially concerning as the number of educational choices expands in many parts of the country. The primary tool states use to share information about school quality is the state report card, which contains details like standardized test scores, teacher qualifications, and attendance data for each school. But report cards are often difficult to find and understand, which can leave families confused and disillusioned, lacking the information they want and need to make choices and advocate for their children.

According to a new national poll commissioned by the Data Quality Campaign, 40 percent of parents surveyed said they didn’t look at publicly available report cards on their children’s school or school district in the past year because they didn’t know the report cards existed. Another 32 percent reported they didn’t know where to find the information.

For those parents who do know where to look, report card content is often technical and confusing. Parents wrestle with too many acronyms and have to decipher numbers and percentages that lack important context that helps explain what the data means. Additionally, in 2017, only nine states translated their school report card into other languages, and analysis with the Hemingway App found the text was too often written at a college reading level—above that of most parents. These challenges make navigating a report card an exceptionally frustrating experience, diminishes its value, and erodes trust in the information being communicated.

Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) nearly every state has made strong commitments to improving its school performance information systems and the law requires states to include multiple new measures of student and school performance on their school report cards. But over the next 12 months these paper commitments must translate into action, providing clear and useful resources for families.

As states work to make education data more accessible, they’re finding that this work is often more challenging than it first appears; for example, California’s initial attempt to create a public-facing education data dashboard was met with confusion and the tool quickly underwent a significant redesign. But there are steps states can take to help ensure their data resources meet families’ needs.

To create meaningful report cards that families value and use, states should:

Make sure families know where to find the report card, what it contains, and how they can use it. A press release is not enough. State leaders should use such tools as social media and e-mail lists to promote the report card proactively and highlight its value and purpose. Consider partners, like state PTA chapters, that can help reach a broader set of families and spread the word about what the data means and how it can be helpful.

Avoid jargon. Making sure that language is as clear as possible means that users will be better able to understand and take action. This may mean using a few more words to fully clarify what a wonky/technical term actually means. Doing this will also help ensure that translations to other languages are equally accessible.

Group relevant data points together to help families see the full picture of student achievement. For example, putting postsecondary data (including the percentages of students entering 2- and 4-year colleges, the military, and the workforce) next to graduation rates helps educators and policymakers understand whether students are successfully transitioning to a post-high-school pathway.

Get parent feedback on report card content and formatting. Once report cards are released, states should seek feedback from families and find out what updates might improve the following year’s report. Some states embed a quick survey on their report card landing page to get real-time feedback from people as they’re using the tool. State leaders should also consider partnering with community-based organizations that have deeper relationships with a diverse set of constituents to ensure the feedback is representative of all parents.

With these actions, policymakers can help ensure that they are putting data to work for students and families.

— Paige Kowalski and Brennan McMahon Parton

Paige Kowalski is Executive Vice President of the Data Quality Campaign, where Brennan McMahon Parton is the Director of Policy and Advocacy.

This piece originally appeared on the FutureEd website. FutureEd is an independent, solution-oriented think tank at Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy. Follow on Twitter at @futureedGU

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College