I would like to say that my recent search for all 50 state report cards, plus those of DC and Puerto Rico, ended with a nicely compiled list of 52 links to easily accessible, understandable data on school systems. However, I cannot. Instead, my search ended with a list of over 100 different links to state report cards, accountability reports, and other data-related pages found through strenuous searches of state education agency websites. For some states, multiple links were necessary just to find all of the data they must report to meet federal requirements.
As an avid internet user who regularly uses Google as a verb, and as someone conversant in education policy, I worry about what my struggles to find and understand state report cards indicate for those who lack background knowledge on education jargon and have limited time. For some states it took me almost an hour to find the data I wanted, such as secondary school graduation rates, results on state assessments, percentages of highly qualified teachers, etc. With hard-to-find reports that are even harder to understand, states have not yet made a strong effort to convey critical data to parents, students, and the general public that help these stakeholders understand school performance and factors that influence it.
Instead of easily accessible report cards with understandable data on school systems, states often presented tables, charts, and graphs; added a few acronyms; and labeled it the state report card. Aside from the standard education alphabet soups of NCLB, ESEA, RTT, AYP, AMO, HQT, LEA, etc., each state also added in its own mix of acronyms, such as the MSA and HSA in my home state of Maryland. While some states provided explanations about these and other specialized terms, finding an explanation and description of why they are significant to the report usually is an exercise in frustration, with states hiding links to glossaries in the corner, if they included one at all.
While most state report cards are lacking, some are better. No state has perfected both ease of access to data and the inclusion of understandable data. But some, like New Mexico, have done better than most states. New Mexico does well in making data available in a few clicks from a basic Google search and presents one of the most comprehendible reports. Not only is it easy to find through a Google search and on the state’s Public Education Department website, but it also considers its potential audience. New Mexico’s state report card provides clear explanations of the data included in the report by limiting its use of education buzzwords and defining the ones it uses. Most importantly, New Mexico’s reports clarify why it looks at specific data sets and how it finds results. On concepts that require more explanation than easily included in the report card, New Mexico provides links to more in-depth resources. The final product is a resource meant to meet the need of the end user, not just meant for compliance.
This type of report card is important because it is critical for parents and other members of the public to have access to useful information in order to understand what is going on with school systems. While some states, like New Mexico, provide an example of what can be done, most states have not yet provided both high-quality data and easy access.
Ashleigh Chin is an intern with the Data Quality Campaign’s State Policy Initiatives team.