When It Comes to School Data, Parents Need Clarity

When the state of Louisiana recently released its 2019 public school grades, we were excited to review and share them with the families we support in New Orleans. We find that many parents are unaware of their school’s grade (polling results from the Cowen Institute suggest that less than 4 in 10 do), and some families do not know that schools are routinely graded at all.

This isn’t because they don’t care. It’s because they don’t always know to look for this information, it isn’t always easy to understand, and it is rarely pushed out to them proactively. But when they have it—along with some help interpreting it— they typically find it useful and motivating. School grades are often one of the first things we discuss with new families we support—and Louisiana has made them better and more nuanced over time.

At a high level, the 2019 grades for New Orleans schools paint a picture of a school system that is improving slowly and incrementally. That’s consistent with long-term trends. Today, New Orleans students are more likely to attend college—and graduate—than they were a decade ago, and are showing progress on multiple other measures as well.

Still, it’s incredibly clear that we have lots of work to do and far to go. Every day our Navigators encounter families who feel frustrated by their school options and experiences. Far too many of our students are not learning the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in college or build fulfilling careers as adults. None of us should be satisfied.

Yet when the new grades were released in Louisiana, our Navigators noticed a surprising trend: Rather than offering parents clear and objective information, we saw jazzed up headlines that buried the truth about how our schools performed, some of which could easily be misconstrued.

For instance, parents were told that “district performance” improved overall. But on closer inspection, that improvement was a one-point increase, meaning that New Orleans maintained its C letter grade from the state. For parents interpreting that data point, it might be helpful to know on average how other parishes improved: Is an improvement of one point a real accomplishment, or does it pale in comparison to neighboring parishes? (It turns out that a one-point improvement is not notably better or worse than others.)

The announcement also highlighted the fact that a majority of schools in New Orleans received A and B letter grades for the “progress index.” This is a measure of how schools are helping students improve—an important data point, to be sure—but those As and Bs can be easily confused with schools’ overall letter grades. Student growth matters; parents deserve to know how well a school is moving students forward, especially those who started off far behind grade level, and doing that well is tremendously difficult and laudable work for educators. But the story of a school’s overall performance can’t be told by growth alone. Many schools with overall grades of D or F are now printing banners and sending letters home to parents to trumpet their progress index score of B, but omitting the bigger picture.

Finally, we noticed celebrations about New Orleans’ “graduation rate index” steadily rising. This is great news for parents, right? Every family has dreams of their child walking across the stage and earning a diploma, of course. But in some schools, graduation rates rose even as ACT scores dropped. Is that cause for celebration? And unlike measures like ACT and end-of-course exam scores, a school’s graduation rate is based on factors the school itself can control. Sometimes that can open the door for questionable behavior, as when a few schools made the news earlier this year for falsifying student grades in order to have them meet graduation requirements. Cheats like this only cheat our families, and families need more than just this slice of information.

As a former school leader, I know schools always want to celebrate their successes and fight the negative narratives about our education system. Here in New Orleans, it’s true that there are good things happening in many of our schools, and those stories rarely get the attention they deserve. But there’s a fine line between telling a positive story and burying the lede so that the true meaning of the data is harder to understand. That’s especially true when it comes to engaging parents in the conversation. They deserve the full picture and a sense of urgency from those they trust to educate their children.

This isn’t just a New Orleans issue. It isn’t just a Louisiana issue. Across the country, families are offered incomplete or confusing information about their kids’ schools, and it isn’t just leaving parents in the dark. Without adequate and accurate information, parents can’t make well-informed choices. Tasks like finding the right school for an emerging middle schooler or evaluating one school’s curriculum over another are incredibly daunting for families. These processes expose the complexities of our system and the real need for clarity, simplicity, and transparency in data reporting to families. When we don’t give families clear and complete information, we rob parents of their true power to authentically engage.

The bottom line is, better marketing doesn’t make better schools. Collective effort in deciphering how and where schools fall short, applying research-backed solutions, and adopting clear accountability measures does.

Here’s a headline we would’ve loved to see last week: “Improvements in NOLA but More Work to Do: 8 out of 50 K-8 schools are doing better than Louisiana’s state performance score.” What New Orleans really needs is clarity about how our schools are doing, not for the sake of holding one party to blame over another, but for the sake of working together to get better. Together, district leaders, teachers, principals, families, and students can work toward a common vision of better schools—but to get there, we all have to understand the whole story.

And what if such clarity sounds the alarm? What’s the worst that could happen? We might see families asking more questions, demanding more, and pushing for change. That’s what we want. Working together, with collective urgency, is the only way we improve.

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