Traditionally, students receive report cards to gauge and reflect their academic performance; nowadays, schools do, too. Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), each state educational agency (SEA) and local educational agency (LEA) that receives Title I Part A funds must prepare and disseminate an annual report card that includes a variety of data about public schools. The data cover a wide range of measures on student and school performance, accountability, per-pupil expenditures and educator qualifications, as well as any other information that the SEA or LEA deems relevant.

Many schools funded by Title I dollars may be stigmatized as “F” schools, but comprehensive, descriptive data can help dispel that stigma. Low-performing schools often suffer from additional pressure and challenges in terms of improving student achievement. For instance, at Allen Middle School in Greensboro, North Carolina, nearly every student comes from a disadvantaged family background, and their performance, as measured by standardized tests, was rather poor. But the students and educators were motivated by a Martin Luther King Jr. quotation: “A man can't ride your back unless it's bent.” They were determined turn the school around. In 2015, the school spent two years working on elevating the grade level of the school, but the results were still discouraging — grades only improved from an “F” to a “D.”

Research from Florida and New York City found that the fear of earning an “F” may lead to measurable improvements in school performance. While this practice can motivate underperforming schools to make needed changes to instructional practices, creating fear among teachers and school leaders is not a positive practice. Is there another option?

Referring to the new state report card, some school district leaders in Oklahoma remarked, “We want to use the data from the report card to improve, but we also want to do it in a way that’s positive for our climate and culture.” The question here is “how?”

Turn Data into Information, and Information into Insight

Providing data, information and insight for parents, schools and other stakeholders is a goal of the data-rich state report cards. Following ESSA, many states implemented a new reporting system for the 2017-18 school year. Now, parents can see how their children’s schools rank in several categories and school leaders can delve deeper into their school performance by examining the grade for each area of school’s overall academic performance.

It is still unclear how state report cards can lead to constructive dialogue between parents and schools. But, “we do know that meaningful engagement in our schools between our parents and our educators has positive outcomes on student achievement and student learning,” an assistant superintendent of student achievement for the Utah State Board of Education said. One purpose of disseminating state report cards is to encourage parents to ask their local schools more questions and become engaged in their school community councils.

So, what are some actions school leaders could take to foster meaningful engagement among parents, teachers and other key stakeholders?Here are some tips.

Tip 1: Use New Benchmarks and Constructs on State Report Cards

More data points often mean more opportunities for school leaders to consider how to improve their schools. The Oklahoma School Report Cards are based on new benchmarks that emphasize academic achievement, student growth, English language proficiency, college and career readiness and attendance. Their superintendents expressed that the new state report card incorporates more contextual information and helps them create a constructive context for improvement.

Here are some questions that school leaders may ask themselves:

  • What type of comparison is meaningful for school improvement? For instance, can a school learn from other schools that have comparable student demographics and receive similar educational funding, but have higher achievement level or academic growth rate? 

  • How can a school use its graduation rate as a starting point for improvement?

Tip 2: Engage Parents in the School Policy-Making Process Using Both Academic and Non-Academic Information on the State Report Cards

ESSA requires that state report cards be concise and presented in an understandable and uniform format accessible to parents with disabilities and parents with limited English proficiency. The mandate makes it easy for parents to find data, but the question here is what data parents may be interested in. A Mackinac Center survey found that 15% of 1,500 Michigan charter school parents said they had difficulty finding useful information about school quality. The survey also revealed that parents were not only interested in academic achievement data, but also in data related to school safety, personal learning environment and programs that meet unique learning needs.

As a result, state report cards must include information on measures of school quality, climate and safety. Some states include information on the percentage of students attaining career and technical certifications, the percentage of students who drop out or the percentage of first-time ninth-graders who advance to the next grade on schedule. When it comes to sharing data, one positive practice for school leaders is to understand what data parents need and then provide them with guidance to locate valid data sources. To engage parents in shaping school policies, schools may seek common ground and mutual interest using data found on state report cards.

Here are some questions that school leaders may want to discuss with parents:

  • What data do parents want to see about school quality? What data can help parents have a clearer picture about the learning environments of your schools?

  • If the data show absenteeism is an issue in that particular school, what strategies do parents think can help reduce chronic absenteeism?

Tip 3: Provide Positive Support to Teachers Based on the Detailed Data on State Report Cards

Research shows that teachers experience a much higher level of stress in low-performing schools than in higher performing schools, and stress has proven a factor for teachers transferring from schools or leaving the profession altogether. School leaders, especially those who work in low-performing schools, have even more difficulty replacing teachers. The good news is that school leaders can glean valuable insights about teachers from state report cards.

Under ESSA, state report cards must include information about educators in high- and low-poverty schools. The data include the number and percentages of inexperienced teachers, principals and other school leaders; teachers working with emergency and provisional credentials; and teachers who are not teaching the subject or field in which they are certified or licensed.

Here are some questions that school leaders may ask themselves to provide positive support to teachers:

  • What is the proportion of inexperienced teachers in my school district? How do students perform in the classroom of inexperienced teachers like first-year teachers in comparison with students from similar classrooms in districts that have comparable demographics? How can school leaders help these teachers to improve?

  • What is the proportion of out-of-field teachers in my school district? How do their students perform in comparison with students from similar classrooms in districts with comparable demographics?  What factors are causing teachers not to teach in the subject or field for which they are certified? How can school leaders help these teachers to improve?

Data Can Tell Stories, but School Leaders Must Give Data a Voice

The comprehensive data provided by state report cards offer opportunities for schools to highlight their strengths, understand their weaknesses and seek positive practices to improve students’ achievement. ESSA allows SEAs to include on its state report card any other information it believes will best inform parents, students and other members of the public about the progress of each elementary and secondary school. This is clearly an advantage. School leaders should seize it and give data a voice. Turn the data into positive practices – that’s the bottom line.

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