States: Stop Playing Games with School Grades

We spend a lot of time thinking about report cards at EdNavigator—both the kind that schools send home to parents as well as the kind most states produce about schools themselves. It’s sort of an obsession.

Why? A big reason is that they’re critical to our work. When we begin supporting a family, the first thing we do is request each child’s academic records from their schools. In order to help families set goals and triage challenges, we need to know how students are doing. Report cards give us a large part of the picture, and families take them very seriously. Likewise, when we’re supporting a family in choosing a school for their child, having a source of clear, objective information about school performance is invaluable.

In Louisiana, we’re fortunate to have a state department of education that has worked hard to make school report cards accessible, understandable and relevant not just to school officials and education insiders, but to families as well. The report cards aren’t perfect, but they’re getting better, and they’re miles ahead of those of many other states.

Recently, the states of California and Michigan announced new approaches to school report cards that illustrate a troubling trend. California, which late last year unveiled a baffling Rubik’s Cube of a school report card, launched a brand new school dashboard that now appears inspired by Trivial Pursuit – and is just as likely to make parents go in circles trying to find answers. California schools no longer get summary grades or scores, but rather collections of color-coded wedges that reflect performance in various areas. The categories and ratings aren’t clearly explained and the effect overall can be overwhelming, especially once you start trying to look more closely at individual student groups (see below).

Put yourself in the shoes of a parent trying to choose a school for your child or understand how your child’s school is doing compared to others nearby. Step 1 is to find out which schools are close by yourself, because you can’t sort or filter by geographic area in the state’s system. Once you know the schools you want to check out, you have to look them up individually – that’s step 2. And then to compare schools you’d need to print out each school’s ratings, line up all the paper and start comparing wedges. God help you if your printer’s color cartridge is out.

If that sounds crazy, you are either a busy parent or a reasonable person. If it doesn’t, you probably work in education.

Michigan, meanwhile, also announced that it is foregoing school letter grades, abandoning a seemingly sensible proposal to assign each school an A-F grade based on student proficiency, growth and other indicators of school quality. Instead, Michigan parents will also get a dashboard that shows a range of quality measures for each school. Whether they, too, will involve colored wedges remains to be seen.

What’s going on here?

Both Michigan and California are doing the same thing: putting a greater burden on families and the public under the guise of presenting a more holistic portrait of each school. Where families would have had access to relatively clear summary grades or scores that helped them understand each school’s relative performance quickly, they now have to wade through and interpret a lot of data on their own. Call it the DIY approach to school report cards.

Don’t be fooled. This isn’t a genuine effort to help families evaluate their school options more thoroughly and thoughtfully, it’s an abandonment of the state’s responsibility to clearly and fairly assess school quality. It’s a disservice to families that will diminish, not increase, their usage of these tools and their trust in state accountability systems. It will make parents work harder to find the same information and, as a result, continue driving them to alternate sources that ARE willing to make those calls.

Make school grades work for families

Defining a quality school is hard. We should be wary of overly reductive school grades, for sure. Great schools are multidimensional. Data about how students do on tests is one important indicator, but there are many others, like the kind of culture a school cultivates and how engaging and responsive it is to students and families. States should ensure those considerations are reflected in their report cards, and that they aren’t labeling schools based on only one source of information.

But we need to strike the right balance between clarity and comprehensiveness. We’ve proposed a model that strives to do that by presenting a simple set of four color-coded grades for each school which, when presented as a group, give families an immediate sense of overall quality. There’s no reason California, Michigan or any other state couldn’t adopt a similar approach.

To other states considering changes in their school report cards and accountability systems (we’re looking at you, Delaware), our message is simple: Don’t play games with families. Give parents the information they’re looking for, and do it fast and clearly. They don’t have time to do your homework for you.

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