Disclosing School Performance to Improve Public Education
Many states enacted school report card requirements in the mid-1980s as concern about the inadequacies of public education mounted. In 1983 A Nation at Risk, a report commissioned by President Ronald Reagan’s secretary of education, Terrell Bell, warned that American public education often was mediocre compared to that of other countries. In a study of students’ performance in twenty-two countries, U.S. students placed twelfth. SAT scores, too, had declined in the 1960s and early 1970s. Press coverage of discipline and drug problems also suggested the need for better school accountability. Education was the largest single item in most state budgets, and candidates featured education issues prominently in state election campaigns in the 1980s.
State and local officials saw school report cards as one way to provide parents with greater choice and to put pressure on school administrators to improve performance. Report cards could work in tandem with other novel approaches that states were experimenting with—vouchers to pay for private schools, charter schools, and performance contracting, a form of financing that allowed schools to design educational programs and secure resources in exchange for agreements to achieve certain performance outcomes.
Report cards could reward schools for meeting their performance targets. In an effort to spread the innovative practices of a few states, Congress required in 1994 that all states establish school performance standards and test students to assess whether they met these standards. Congress also required educational agencies receiving funding under Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to “publicize and disseminate to teachers and other staff, parents, students, and the community” the results of annual performance reviews.
The content, presentation, and means of disseminating information in school report cards continued to vary widely from state to state, however. According to a national study by Education Week in 1999, only thirty-six states published regular report cards on individual schools. Most presented information on schools’ past test scores and on state averages. Reporting on other aspects of performance—school safety, class size, and faculty qualifications—was less common. Only a quarter of the states with report cards presented information that allowed comparisons among test scores of schools with similar student demographics. Some states distributed school report cards to students, while most made them available on the Internet.
One major problem was the lack of consensus about the kinds of data that school report cards should contain to measure performance. Surveys conducted in 1998 found that parents and educators sometimes had quite different views regarding important content, and that existing school report cards did not always contain information that both regarded as very important. Educators were more likely to want demographic and disaggregated data, while some parents were concerned that such data would be divisive. Only about a third of those polled thought that schools should be judged principally on student achievement on standardized tests. Most regarded indicators of teacher quality and school climate as among the critical data to include.
In addition, some early research suggested that surprisingly few parents and educators made use of report card information. Research by Public Agenda conducted in 1999 found that only 52 percent of teachers and 31 percent of parents had seen a school report card. In 2001, the George W. Bush administration championed the No Child Left Behind Act as a centerpiece of public education reform. Among other provisions, the law required school districts that received federal assistance for disadvantaged students under Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to publish report cards for each of its schools.
The new federal requirements demanded disclosure of more information than was commonly published by districts at that time. School report cards had to disclose students’ achievement on state tests and disaggregate test scores by race, disability status, and English proficiency. They also had to disclose teacher qualifications and show trends in achievement, dropout rates, graduation rates, and percentages of students not tested. By 2004, all fifty states provided school report cards and forty-four states disaggregated student achievement data by race and disability as required by 2001 law. However, only fourteen states disaggregated graduation data and provided information regarding the number and percentage of “highly qualified” teachers as required by the law.
At the same time, multiple federal and state reporting requirements created confusion. In 2004, nineteen states had more than one report card per school and sixteen states created special report cards to comply with the requirements of the No Child Left Behind law.
One careful study of state-level student performance in 2004 found that the incentives and sanctions associated with accountability systems in education reform had a significant and positive impact on test scores but that school report cards alone had no independent statistically significant effect. A National Bureau of Economic Research study published in 2007 revealed some evidence that parents’ use of school report card data to inform school choice depends on simplified content. They found that the reporting requirements under No Child Left Behind brought significant change in school choice behavior among parents, academically benefitting some students. They further concluded that simplifying school report card content resulted in increased average test scores.
Signed by President Obama in 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act provided states with more flexibility in devising their accountability systems. State report card content mandates were expanded to allow state education agencies more leeway in what metrics were included in reports and required states to involve parents in the process. The amended law moved away from No Child Left Behind’s Annual Yearly Progress provisions and emphasis on test scores and expanded content reporting requirements that allowed states to select an additional measurement from a list of school performance “school quality and student success” indicators including chronic absenteeism, college and career readiness, and school climate.
Over time, U. S. state school report cards have improved while presenting ongoing deficiencies. The 2016 Data Quality Campaign review of 51 report cards revealed that only four state report cards were fully compliant in providing school performance information required by No Child Left Behind, and 45 states published report cards in English only. Although federal law requires states to make their report cards accessible online, 19 states required three or more clicks to reach report card information. The 2019 Data Quality Campaign review noted continuing report card challenges but noted improvements in some areas, e.g., 31 states now had mobile-friendly report cards, and in 2020 the Data Quality Campaign revealed the number of states providing English translation for report cards had risen to 25.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and resultant nationwide disruption the U.S. Department of Education allowed states to apply for waivers to the school accountability requirements of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act for the school years 2019 through 2021. As of February 2022, many states had not executed all facets of the federally mandated accountability systems since 2019.
Updated November 2023
This case study is drawn from Full Disclosure, Fung, Graham and Weil, 2007.
School Matters—taken offline, see note.
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