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School Information Design Winners Aim to Simplify Accountability Data for Parents

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School and district accountability report cards are often confusing and complicated, which means most parents don't even bother to make sense out of them.

The Foundation for Excellence in Education is hoping to prod education leaders to think about the design of their school accountability reports and not just the content. The foundation, a Tallahassee, Fla.-based education advocacy group established by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, announced the winners of the My School Information Design Challenge Dec. 9.

Designers from all over the nation competed to help states revamp their school report cards into a user-friendly format for parents, policymakers, and the public. Collaborative Communications and Social Driver won the $15,000 grand prize, while Rennzer was the runner-up. (Both firms are based in Washington, D.C.) The foundation hoped the contest would attract top designers that may not have previously worked in education.

While the foundation is a staunch proponent of school accountability systems and their A-F grading systems, these school ranking systems continue to face intense criticism. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund filed a lawsuit in March, claiming that New Mexico's A-F school accountability policies drive teachers away from some schools and unfairly impacts the state's obligation to educate its neediest students. Meanwhile New York City School Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced in October that the district would abolish its letter-grade rating system for schools.

Nationally, John Bailey, vice president of policy for the foundation, said states are technically meeting the federal mandate that requires them to publish school report cards, but stressed that it's not simply about "publishing a handful of numbers and data points."

Bailey said the data should be presented in a transparent manner to not only inform parents about their local school, but to help drive school improvement efforts. He added that state officials have the technical expertise to calculate data and develop accountability metrics are sorely lacking an adequate design to make that information comprehensible.

A report published by the Education Commission of the States in August lauded some states for the ease of use of their state report cards. However, the Denver-based research group also wrote: "As states continue with their efforts, some may need to re-evaluate their ratings systems and make necessary course corrections to reach their goals. State leaders should consider whether the public reports are providing increased transparency and serving the needs of parents and communities."

The confounding nature of school accountability data has always been one of my biggest pet peeves as a longtime education reporter who was charged with deciphering the Kentucky Education Reform Act's test score data in the 1990s. Today, as the mother of two elementary school students in California, I can compare and contrast flat screen televisions more easily than I can determine which local middle school would best serve the educational needs of my son.

That's where Bailey said he hopes this contest and its designers can step in and help. States and school districts can immediately use the winning designs to improve their report cards, he said. Bailey also hopes the contest will spur state leaders to "think as seriously about the design of their state report cards as they do about the accuracy of the data points themselves."

Finally, let's be clear here: Nobody is talking about making school report card designs "pretty." It's about presenting unfiltered education data in an understandable format. Now that would be pretty nice.

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