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Six Tips for Reading Your School's State Report Card

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Tuesday, August 23, 2011 at 5:30 PM


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StateImpact Ohio: Most Recent School Report Cards
StateImpact Ohio: Ohio School Report Card Resources

Ohio's Department of Education releases school report cards on an annual basis.

How can parents make sense of the information in the report cards for their children's schools? And, more importantly, how can they use the report cards to get the best education for their children? After speaking with Ohio parents and education policy experts, we gathered these tips for reading your school's state report card.

1. Use the report card as a starting point.
The state report card basically looks at student performance on state standardized tests in reading and math and a little bit in science. It crunches those numbers in a couple different ways, and also looks at attendance rates and graduation rates, but it largely reflects standardized test performance.

What it doesn't tell you is the reasons for that performance. And it doesn't tell you about other things that might be important to you in a school, things like whether the school has a strong sense of community, if it teaches skills in other academic and non-academic areas, if your child will feel safe in the school, and so on.

2. Take a look at the state rating.
Determining a school's rating starts with looking both at a school's performance index (more on that in a moment) and at what percentage of state standards it meets for graduation rates, attendance rates and the percent of students passing state standardized tests. Based on a school's performance in those areas, the Department of Education then looks at whether or not a school meets the goals Ohio set under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. And then (almost there!) the department looks at whether the school made progress with students since the previous year--and out comes the final school rating.

If you're going to pick a school based on state ratings, Ohio State University education policy professor Jerome D'Agostino recommends looking for schools rated "Excellent" or "Effective," the equivalent of an "A" or "B." Those are the schools that, in general, do really good jobs of not just getting students to meet the basic grade-level expectations of state-standardized tests, but to excel on those tests.

3. If you pay attention to just one number, look at the performance index.
The performance index measures the whole gamut of student performance on state tests, from the percentage of students who fail those tests (or aren't tested at all) to the percentage passing and beyond, to the students acing the tests.

The performance index reflects the achievement of every student enrolled for the full academic year. The performance index is a weighted average that includes all tested subjects and grades and untested students. The greatest weight is given to advanced scores (1.2); the weights decrease for each performance level and a weight of zero is given to untested students.

The performance index is a weighted average. That means that to calculate it, the Department of Education multiples the percentage of students at each level (failing, passing and so on) by a number: 1 for the percentage passing, more for students doing better and fractions for students scoring at lower levels. D'Agostino, the Ohio State University professor, recommends looking for an overall performance index of at least 90. That means that a school helps most of its student pass--and excel--on state tests.

4. Look at the trends over time.
The Ohio Department of Education includes information on school performance in past years on each report card. Are your school’s numbers moving up? That's great. But if they've been sliding downward for two or more years, then it's time to ask some questions. Which brings us to tip #5.

"You’re just at the exit door and you’re seeing 'Here’s the performance on the third grade math test,' but you don’t really know if that reflects everything that goes on at the school."

-Jerome D'Agostino, Ohio State University School of Educational Policy & Leadership

5. Ask your principal questions. And expect answers.
If you see a downward trend, talk with your school's principal and ask why the school's performance is moving in that direction, suggests Piet van Lier, an education policy analyst at Policy Matters. The principal should be willing to talk with you (or with a group of parents) and let you visit the school. "If you’re welcome in the school that’s one of the main indicators," van Lier says.

Beyond taking your call, the principal should be able to explain why the school performed as it did--and what the plan is to improve. Brushing off the state report card results as "just a state requirement" or an unreliable source of information isn't a good sign.

6. Realize the report card's strengths and limitations.
The state report cards cover a lot of ground, looking at the percentage of students with basic, grade-level reading, math and science skills, how school performance is changing over time, attendance rates and so on.

But in other ways, the report cards are cropped snapshots of school performance: They focus on state standardized-test performance and, particularly for elementary and high schools, include the performance of only about half of a school's students. So it's a good idea to go beyond the rating and report card if you want to know how your school is doing, or where to send your child to school.

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