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Parents Relying on School Report Cards Can Be Confused

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All parents want to send their children to an A+ school. However, a study published online today in Educational Policy, from the March/April 2013 issue, indicates that grades given to schools can be confusing to parents, particularly when the grades are changed arbitrarily.

That happened in New York City, when leaders decided to raise the bar in 2010 by capping the number of schools that could receive an A, dropping many schools from an A to a C grade even though student performance did not necessarily change, explained Rebecca Jacobsen, assistant professor of teacher education at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich., in a phone interview today.

"That rapid change influenced the way parents saw their schools," said Jacobsen, who is a guest editor of this Educational Policy issue, and co-author of an article in it entitled, "When Accountability Strategies Collide: Do Policy Changes That Raise Accountability Standards Also Erode Public Satisfaction?" Not surprisingly, parent satisfaction with the schools declined when the grades dropped, and even when grades of the schools increased, parent satisfaction did not, Jacobsen's research shows.

Conversely, Kentucky decided to change its school rating system, from an index with 140 points to an index of 100. For a future journal article, Jacobsen is also studying how Kentucky prepared the public for this change. There, schools scoring 97 one year on the 140-point scale might have a numeric score in the high 70s the next year, without much changing at all about student performance.

Jacobsen visited the Commonwealth Institute for Parent Leadership in Kentucky, which receives funding from the governor's office, where parents are trained to be leaders at their schools. "I watched what they did, to understand what can be gained from that training. These were parents who will go back to their schools and become leaders on many fronts, including explaining the data," said Jacobsen.

"If we're going to put all this information out there, which isn't a bad idea, we have to recognize that it's far more complicated than, 'What did my school get for its letter grade or percentile this year?'," she said.

Jacobsen offers the following advice for parents who want to evaluate schools based on published grades or scores:


  • Ask schools' principals and teachers about the year-over-year changes, and why those changes have happened. "When they see these jumps in scores, parents should not jump to conclusions" that the changes are always tied to student performance, Jacobsen said, pointing to the New York and Kentucky examples. "It sure can be hard to take a deep breath and ask those deep questions when you see your child's school has received a C or D, though."

  • Watch how the media interprets the scores, because that is not always done in a context parents understand. "The media has the responsibility to be really clear when they report these big changes," she said. The state of Kentucky made a concerted effort with a public relations campaign to make sure people understood the major drop in numeric scores was an adjustment in the scale used, rather than the quality of the education itself, Jacobsen said.

  • The PTA can play a role in finding the mother or father who wants to be the "savvy data parent," the point person who has done the background homework to figure out what the numbers and grades mean, and then agrees to share that information with parents.

  • Parents should ask themselves, "What doesn't this number or grade tell us about our school?" Does the score incorporate all aspects of getting a well-rounded education, including the arts and physical activity? "Asking, 'What's not included?' might be just as important as finding out what is," said Jacobsen, "because you might decide everything included in the score isn't everything you care about."

"We want schools to do lots of things. Trying to capture all those things, whether it be with a number or a letter grade, is really complicated," Jacobsen said. "How do we ever distill all things that go on in schools down to that?"

"My big worry is that if we don't get this right, we could really erode people's confidence in their schools," she said.

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