THE BLOG
11/04/2014 04:03 pm ET Updated Jan 04, 2015

States Should Be Giving You Useful Data About Your Children's Schools

We're all familiar with the ritual of the report card from our days as students. The term ends and you're given a sheet of paper detailing your performance in various courses and disciplines, often with instructions to take it home for your parents to review and sign. Whether report card day brings back memories of triumph or despair -- probably both, for most of us -- it was at least a time of transparency and accountability, when students and parents had to reckon with the reality on the page.

While report card day is a moment of truth for students, when is the time for states to pony up accurate information about how they're doing to parents? The answer in too many states is not often enough.

Parents -- and everyone with a stake in education -- need high-quality information to make the best decisions for students. Making aggregate information (which contains no data that could be used to identify individuals) readily available to parents, educators, policymakers, researchers, and members of the public and press is called public reporting. Unlike student-level report cards, quality public reporting provides a variety of information about schools, including things like financial data, student performance, teacher effectiveness, and more. And I should note that parents also need secure access to more detailed information about their own kids. In 2014 parents in only 17 states (up from 8 in 2011) have access to data that follow their children's progress over time. Parents should have that access no matter where they live.

The good news is that all states are required by law to report information to the public about schools and districts. And the bad news . . . well, do you know where to find this information about the schools in your community? Is the information easy to access and to understand? It should be.

An increasing number of states (33 in 2014, up from 23 in 2011) have been working to raise awareness of available data, like using press releases or social media to get the word out and providing training to help parents and community leaders know how to understand and use the data. (For more on current progress across the nation, be sure to check out Data for Action 2014, DQC's annual state survey and analysis, coming out November 20.)

Transparency and accountability are essential goals of public reporting. States must be able to demonstrate how tax dollars are being spent and assure the public that resources are being used wisely to improve student outcomes. But public reporting of education data must be more than a box-checking exercise for states to comply with federal law. It must also be able to empower individuals with accurate information that's useful, trustworthy, timely, and easy to find.

As a mom, I want good information to answer my questions. Are the students in my children's school doing as well academically as those in other schools nearby? Are they enrolling in college? How are my kids in particular, and our community's school in general, doing on the state test that measures college and career readiness? Does the school provide students access to good resources, like guidance counselors and advanced classes? I shouldn't need an advanced degree to find and understand the answers.

Some states are doing wonderful work in this area, focusing on providing reports that actually meet people's information needs. Ohio recognizes that different people need different information by making data available in multiple formats geared toward answering stakeholders' questions. And Maryland makes data available on a website where parents can find out how their child's school performed on the state assessment compared with other schools in the district and state. The information is easy to find, access, and understand.

Earlier I likened the traditional student report card to public reporting, but it must be said that such report cards are just one limited format for sharing information. Data can help identify when students are falling off track, so that interventions can be taken before report card season. And parents shouldn't have to wait till the end of the semester to find out how their child is doing. With new technology and more effective data use, parents -- like me -- may have regular access to information like whether their child is missing homework, struggling in a certain class, or showing other warning signs.

Likewise, public reporting about schools must be timely, ongoing, and presented in a meaningful format. Michigan understands that, publishing data as soon as they're available -- in many cases for the current academic year. The District of Columbia understands the importance of trust in public reporting, publishing not only city school district information, but linking to data from the Public Charter School Board and an independent school information site. Providing information from multiple sources shows not only that the system's information is unbiased but also that it strives to ensure stakeholders' information needs are met.

Whatever state you live in, it should be providing easy-to-use information about your child's school. If it's not, I urge you to think about who you could talk to -- your principal, the school's parent-teacher organization, the school board, a state legislator, or someone else -- about how to make it better.

Quality reporting of education data provides vital information to parents and the public, to inform the decisionmaking of everyone who has a stake in education. We should celebrate the great strides states have taken to get school data in the hands of the public, while demanding the most accurate and useful information to answer our questions and improve outcomes for our students.