By David Casalaspi
The recently passed Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) received acclaim for scaling back the federal government’s role in accountability. But at the same time it loosened the accountability reins on states, it also bolstered transparency requirements.
The biggest changes on this front are new requirements which add additional subgroups to existing school and district report cards. Previously, schools and districts have been required to publish data on the test scores and completion rates of various demographic subgroups, such as white students, African American students, Asian students, poor students, and students with special needs to name a few. Moving forward, however, they will also have to report the performance of less-talked-about groups: foster children, homeless students, and students from active-duty military families. The ESSA also mandates that school quality report cards be reported in a manner that can be cross-tabulated, allowing people to look at the performance of discrete subpopulations, like African American male English-Language Learners or Asian female foster children, and compare that performance to state averages or those of other subgroups. Additionally, schools and districts must report per-pupil expenditures and post-secondary enrollment rates (where available) to highlight disparities in school resources as well as outcomes.
Supporters of the expanded transparency think these requirements will help schools and districts improve moving forward. Civil rights advocates believe it will provide even more detailed information that can be used to target interventions to disadvantaged populations which might otherwise be neglected. Others believe the new requirements will equip parents with more valuable information that can be used when deciding where to send their children to school.
But while the push for greater transparency is laudable, much work will have to be done to make sure the new report cards are easy to read and useful for their target audiences. Previously, report cards have failed to spur school improvement because the information has been presented in a confusing way or has neglected the things that parents actually care about. In response, schools and districts have been trying to create more user-friendly reporting systems, but much work remains to be done. With big changes coming in 2017-2018 school year as a result of the ESSA, now is the perfect time for states to thoughtfully evaluate the cosmetic and substantive features of their school report cards.
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