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Betsy DeVos' Team Holds School Report Card 'Design Challenge'

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Washington, D.C.

One of the biggest changes in the Every Student Succeeds Act is that states must publish a host of new information. School report cards must now include data on school-by-school spending, long-term English-language learners, homeless and foster students, and more.

So how should states make sure all that information is clear and easy for parents to understand? Enter the U.S. Department of Education's "Report Card Design Challenge," held in Washington earlier this month.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos' staff put an all-call out to teams of graphic designers, district and state leaders, data wonks, and other specialists from around the country to take a crack at coming up with a user-friendly report card that includes all of the information required under ESSA. And they invited parents, policy wonks from organizations like the Data Quality Campaign, and state officials to offer feedback on those designs.

The challenge is a recognition that creating parent-friendly report cards is difficult, said Jim Blew, the assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy analysis at the department. "We're looking for ways to be helpful without telling people what to do," he said.

In particular, there is a need to make school-level financial data transparent and accessible, Blew added, given new requirements in ESSA.

The designs—including feedback from parents and policy experts—will be shared on the Education Department's blog and website. And they will be displayed in a "gallery walk" at the December Combined Federal Programs Meeting, which brings together state coordinators for Title I-III programs.

Organizations like the Data Quality Campaign have said many current state report cards make information difficult to find and understand.

That's something the parents participating in the November  event have noticed too.

"For Virginia, I don't think the transparency is there, as far as all of the information of what makes a good school and being able to track that, and even if it is, it's not accessible," said Tony Shivers, a Virginia parent who operates his own lobbying consulting firm and offered feedback on the designs. "And even if it's accessible it's not easily digestible for parents. This is a good initiative to really simplify the information in a concise way."

He would also love to see report cards go beyond ESSA requirements and include information on things like whether a school offers a particular sport, or after-school activity.

The teams cooked up report cards that are more colorful and easy to digest than the typical school report card. Some presented information in both English and Spanish, or put a priority on being easy-to-read on a mobile phone. Others steered clear of words some parents can't easily grasp—like "academics"—in favor of easier-to-understand terms, like student success or achievement.

Some included clear language putting a school's data in context, explaining that a school's graduation rates were on the rise, or that it has recently slipped in academic achievement. And some went beyond student achievement, offering information about extracurricular activities, school facilities, and more.  

"These kids have been amazing, and I say kids because they have several university teams," said Frances Frost, a Maryland parent who helped critique the designs. "A couple of them have the data and then they have another narrative about why that data is important, which is very helpful to parents. Because I could look at a suspension rate and say is that good is that bad, what does that mean? So some of them are being thoughtful in that way."

The teams approached the report card design by asking themselves "what data supports what people are going to want to know, as opposed to the school district [which] is like, 'We've got the math scores, how do we get this out there?'" she said.

In making information easier to understand, however, districts and states may face pushback from schools and districts that are anxious about having certain information—like a drop in test scores—made plain in report cards.

That's something that happened in Michigan. The state created a new dashboard for parents that included things like staffing metrics, postsecondary enrollment, and other factors that hadn't been heavily promoted in the past, said Chris Janzer, the assistant director of accountability for the state, who also gave feedback on the designs  But he said that district officials have realized the information is helpful to parents.

Blew noted that some of the report card designs in the challenge offered schools a chance to provide information beyond the numbers. That could help cut through political tension, he said.

"I think the way we counteract [the politics] is to allow people to explain the data where a school can say yes, it's true our graduation rates have gone down, and here's what we're doing to fix that," he said.

In addition to the design challenge, DeVos and company have also released a "parent's guide" to ESSA report cards, to help families who are trying to make sense of the data. The guide highlights a couple of states that have strong report cards in the department's view, including Ohio and Virginia. The department has also released an explainer for parents on the law itself.

Some state officials have signaled that they could use more-formal guidance on how to design ESSA report cards. The department hasn't said one way or the other whether it will be issuing that guidance. But Blew said he expected the department would take further action on the report card issue—he wasn't sure just what that would look like at this point. 

Want to learn more about the Every Student Succeeds Act? Here's some useful information:


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