California Families Need Clear School Quality Reports, Not a Rubik’s Cube

California is currently revamping its school quality reports, moving away from abstract, numerical values of school quality to a set of more comprehensive ratings. It comes a little over a year after the State Board of Education voted unanimously to stop using standardized test scores as the primary measure of school performance. Supporters of the plan argue that this will avoid the oversimplification that inevitably occurs when you reduce a school to a single number, and give families a more holistic sense of each school’s attributes.

That’s all well and good, in theory. The risk, though, is swinging too far in the other direction and presenting so much information that families can’t make heads or tails of it. Summary ratings may be imperfect, but so is a collection of measures that are hard for parents to interpret or that blur important differences between schools. School quality report cards are only useful insofar as they present families with a clear picture of overall performance that helps them make real-life decisions.

A clear picture is not, unfortunately, what California’s proposed school quality reports promise families. The state’s draft instead gives them 17 color-coded boxes to characterize various dimensions of school performance, along with a 25-box lookup table. It’s not a report card, it’s a Rubik’s cube.

The problem is not the measures that the state board is considering; English and math test scores, academic growth, suspension and absenteeism rates, school climate ratings and other indicators can all provide useful insights into school success. The problem is that they are all presented as being of approximately equal importance, and in a fashion that will be overwhelming to most parents. What happens when you scramble the colors of a whole set of Rubik’s cubes? They all start to look alike.

It’s possible that this is all unintentional. What else should we expect when bureaucrats hire consultants to create a tool meant for families? But a darker possibility is that the report’s confusing format is actually deliberate – not a bug but a feature. Illuminating problems with schools and differences between schools tends to provoke questions and create headaches for everyone in the system, including school district administrators, unions, and the state board itself. Clear information empowers families, and not everyone believes that’s a good thing.

Some Board members voiced concern about the draft reports, and have stressed that the process is not yet complete. They say changes are possible. Let’s hope so. There are plenty of design changes that California could make to improve this report card, from simplifying the color coding (if you need a lookup table, it’s not simple enough) to clustering the ratings under clear headings like “Academic Performance.”

But the biggest change the state can and should make is simply involving families in the design process. It’s not clear if that’s part of the plan, but it has to be. These reports and others like them are created, ostensibly, for the public good. Let the public – and especially real California parents, not policy wonks or education professionals—review the proposals and tell the Board what’s working and what’s not. And don’t call it done until it gives them what they need: not just color, but clarity.

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