What We're Learning

Give Parents School Report Cards They Can Actually Use

We recently published a set of adjusted school grades for Orleans Parish schools. We hope they help give families a different perspective on schools by putting greater emphasis on how much schools are helping students grow—which our families value over many other considerations. But they also highlight a larger problem: While parents have access to an enormous amount of information about schools, that information doesn’t necessarily reflect what they care about most, isn’t always easy to interpret, and is hard to distill to a single letter grade.

School report cards offer a prime example. Ostensibly, they exist to help parents and the public understand and make informed decisions about schools. But most of them seem targeted to an audience of policymakers and wonks, not families.  They vary wildly in the type and amount of information they present.

To its credit, the state of Louisiana (where EdNavigator is focused) actually has one of the more user-friendly school report card formats currently in use. Here’s a sample:

For now, let’s leave considerations about presentation and data visualization aside (that’s worth a post unto itself) and focus on the content.

If you look at this report card one way, you could say it tells you a fair amount. This is a C school.  At the top, you get a very high-level sense of the school’s student body and its overall grade. Then you see additional details about student performance and how successful students are in their first year of high school. At the bottom, you get some insight into the school’s ability to help students who are struggling to improve, as well as a glimpse of how this year’s performance compares to last year’s. Not bad, right?

Look at the same report card through the eyes of a parent trying to choose a school, however, and you realize that it leaves a lot of important questions unanswered.

This is one of the reasons for the proliferation of new sources of information about schools, from national organizations like GreatSchools.org to locally produced resources like the New Orleans Parents’ Guide. Such resources offer parents another lens on schools and different insights.

But states play a unique role in deciding what about schools gets measured and reported, and other entities tend to defer to the state for determining academic progress. States could do more to try to present a holistic picture of each school that keeps the focus on academic performance but gives families insight into other key dimensions of school quality as well. In fact, the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires that they do exactly that.

What would that look like? In addition to providing basic information about things like student demographics and teacher characteristics, I’d argue that school report cards should be judged based on how well (and how easily) they allow parents to answer four core questions:

  1. How well does this school help students learn? How quickly do students grow?  As a parent, I want to know how likely it is that a school will help my daughter progress beyond her current abilities. If she’s behind, I want to know how successful the school is in catching kids like her up; if she’s on track or ahead, I want to know whether she’s likely to coast or continue to be challenged. A clear rating based on value-added or other growth data would be a good start.
  2. How are students at this school performing overall? Growth is important, but so is reaching the finish line. I want to know not only how much students are growing during their time in school, but where they end up. How many are on track for college readiness?
  3. How do students experience this school? Does it have a very regimented, strict culture, or a looser one? Do they feel cared-for and safe? How much attention do they get? How engaging do they find their classes and teachers? What resources and activities are available to them? Some of these questions are factual and easy to answer; others are highly personal and subjective. Why not survey students themselves, and report the results in a composite student engagement or school culture rating?
  4. Is this a school that families love or one they endure? How well does the school communicate with families? Do they feel welcomed and involved, or mostly shut out? When they have a concern, are they satisfied with the response? When I buy something on Amazon.com, other users’ reviews and ratings have an enormous impact on my decision. Yet families in New Orleans are asked to select schools without any indication of how satisfied other families are with them. That’s crazy. Here, too, a regular family engagement and satisfaction survey would go a long way.

These are the broad questions we find ourselves discussing with parents most often when they’re deciding between schools. The sample report card above answers the second one and provides some insight on the first, but leaves the last two unaddressed (Louisiana currently does not collect that information). Mainly, it focuses on student proficiency.

Is it possible to condense all of this down to a single user-friendly grade or rating? Probably not, and trying to do so is probably a bad idea. But we should be careful not to overwhelm parents with a pile of ratings or dilute the importance of a school’s academic performance even as we try to move beyond summary letter grades. What I care about as a parent is getting a reasonably fast, clear perspective on how the school is doing overall, based on all of the dimensions above.

Introducing the EdNavigator 4Score

Here’s one way to do it: Instead of pushing towards a single grade that inevitably oversimplifies things, show parents how each school does on each dimension above, but in a way that offers an at-a-glance picture of the school overall, like this:

We call it the 4Score. Some basic color-coding would make it easy for parents to get a general sense of the school’s success (seeing more green is better than seeing more yellow and orange) while drawing immediate attention to areas of particular strength or concern. Schools, in turn, would no longer be reduced to merely “A” schools or “C” schools, which would make for more honest and nuanced conversations about performance for everyone. Imagine this type of box instead of the big “C” in the corner of the sample report card we reviewed. Wouldn’t it change the way you thought about the school?

Making this a reality wouldn’t necessarily be easy. It entails gathering more data and going through the difficult work of determining what to value and how to create ratings where none may exist today. But that process would give states and cities an excellent opportunity to ask families what they care about and engage them in the redesign work. Furthermore, plenty of cities and states already collect much of this information through instruments like the 5Essentials survey. It’s just a matter of putting it all together, in a way that makes sense to parents. Let’s get cracking.