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Does Your State Provide Good Data On Your Schools? Probably Not

Stuart Kinlough
Getty Images

So you're trying to find some information about the schools in your community. Did students perform well on tests? How many students in a school are from low-income families? What's the demographic breakdown? Most folks would start to look for this by searching the web. But, depending on the state you live in, finding that information can be a real challenge.

That's according to a new report from the Data Quality Campaign. Analysts there spent 100 hours last summer looking at annual report cards put out by all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Here's what they found: Confusion. Broken links. Complicated tables and spreadsheets, filled with numbers and figures without meaning. There was missing data, out-of-date data and lots and lots of education jargon.

"We are passionate data geeks and we couldn't find this information," says Aimee Rogstad Guidera, president and CEO of the Data Quality Campaign, a group that advocates for better use of student information.

Just because the researchers couldn't find the data, says Guidera, doesn't mean that states aren't reporting it. States are required to have report cards each year to satisfy state and federal law, but there's no requirement to make that information easily available and understandable.

"The point is," says Guidera, "they're not communicating in a way that adds any value to someone living in their state."

Here are some of the report's findings:

  • Just four states had all the information initially required under the previous federal education law, No Child Left Behind.
  • Six states did not appear to have data on English language learners academic performance.
  • 13 states did not break their performance data down by gender.
  • About half of states included a non-academic measure of quality.
  • 11 states had old data, from the 2010-11, 2012–13 or 2013–14 school years.
  • in 18 states, it took analysts three or more clicks from the search engine results to find the data.
  • State report cards come in many different forms. Many use letter grades, A – F, for rating a school or district. Some states assign a number grade, like Kentucky, which gives districts a number on a scale of 1 to 100, and a classification. Wolfe County in Campton, Ky., for example — a rural district NPR Ed visited earlier this year — has an overall score of 69.3 and a Proficient classification.

    But the drawback of a number or a single word rating, is it can be too simple.

    "A person won't be invested in something they don't understand," says Stephen Pruitt, Kentucky's education commissioner. He's heard this over and over in his state: What does the number really mean. And, he says, is the number helpful? Is it what parents, students and local business leaders need?

    "It's a challenge to build something that shows all those different data elements, sometimes simply because you don't go ask the people who are actually going to use it."

    So Pruitt has set out to do just that: Ask the people of Kentucky what information they want to see. He's traveled his state, meeting educators and parents. Here's the one thing he hears over and over: "Give us more data."

    It's not a new idea. The Education Commission of the States did a similar project in 2014looking at state report-card data. They found many of the same frustrations. Here is a sampling of the negative feedback from parents in that study:

    "Extremely boring and data in tables not clearly labeled or explained."

    "They use words that are not meaningful to the general public (Cell Count, etc.)."

    "Not much reference or explanation of the 'B' grade in the upper right-hand corner. Amount of data insufficient."

    "This is a reality that a lot of states are grappling with right now," says Jeremy Anderson, president of the Education Commission of the States. He points to diminished staffing and funding at the state level and also the inconsistency of data across schools and districts.

    "You have to figure out: How do you make sure that even the smallest district is reporting that information the same way that some of your largest urban school districts are," he says.

    The new federal education law, ESSA, does provide an opportunity for states to rethink the way they use data to explain outcomes. There are new reporting requirements for students who don't speak English and a new non-academic measure – like school climate surveys or chronic absence – which states can decide on.

    Aimee Rogstad Guidera of the Data Quality Campaign says the new law could be a turning point for states.

    Right now, she says, "data is used as a box-checking exercise." But in the future, it could be a savvy communication tool "that parents and community members deserve."

    Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Elissa Nadworny
    Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.