With the rise in accountability and school choice initiatives across the nation, many states and districts are publishing school report cards on the internet to help parents decide which school is best. Now, a nonprofit organization has compiled a database of these web-based report cards and identified 10 as the best, saying schools should use them as an example in creating their own reports.

“What we’ve tried to do is compile a clearinghouse of all the web-based report cards from around the country,” said Tom Dawson, a fellow in education affairs at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that has focused recently on school choice initiatives.

The reports let parents learn more about the schools in their community, whether they’re public or private. “As the school choice initiative expands, we think it’s pertinent that parents can make good choices,” he said.

With the creation of “The Report Card Report: America’s Best Web Sites for School Profiles,” parents and educators now can go to one web site to find all school report cards in the United States.

“As more and more states and private groups put these report cards online, it’s important to compare and contrast them,” Dawson said. Linking to all the report cards through the Heritage Foundation’s clearinghouse lets parents do this more easily, he added.

States and local school districts soon may be required by law to be more forthcoming with their reports. The reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) now being considered by Congress would mandate that all schools publish such reports and make them widely available via the internet.

The report card measure was added to the ESEA reauthorization bill as a companion to increased accountability and testing requirements that also would become part of the bill. Schools would be required to test students in grades three through eight in math and English every year.

Mary Conk, legislative specialist for the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), said the school report-card mandate undoubtedly will be included in the final bill.

“It’s going to be one of the least-debated items. If anything is debated, it will be what’s to be included in the reports,” Conk said. AASA is in favor of letting states and local communities decide what information such report cards should contain, rather than having this federally mandated.

But AASA does agree that school report cards should be comprehensive and reflect what happens at the school, including special-interest subjects, enrollment characteristics, and teacher retention.

“We believe that no single test score should represent a whole school. There have to be other indicators on that report,” Conk said. “You want to paint a larger picture of a school. … State tests only test two subjects, [but] there’s so much more in a school.”

Top 10 profiles

In selecting the 10 best report cards on the web, Heritage Foundation staff members subjectively examined more than 100 web-based reports for comprehension and presentation.

“The web is a really powerful tool, but if it’s not used well … it’s not as effective as it could be,” Dawson said.

So what does a good web-based report card do?

“It provides easy, accessible, up-to-date information about how well the school and kids are doing,” Dawson said. It also should provide comprehensive information about student, teacher, and school characteristics, laid out on one page.

States often provide test-score numbers or school safety figures, but they don’t explain why the numbers are important, Dawson said.

“It’s important to provide comprehensive information, but you also have to explain what [stakeholders are] looking at,” Dawson said. “Most parents aren’t statisticians and are not well-versed in the jargon.”

If a report card says students at a given school are in the 54th percentile, for example, the report card should explain exactly what that means.

“The key is for [the reports] to be accessible and easy for parents to understand,” Dawson said.

The 10 best school profiles identified by the Heritage Foundation each have a unique look. They include information on varying topics and were developed by school systems, for-profit companies, and nonprofit organizations.

For example, Just for the Kids, a nonprofit web site that dispenses information on Texas schools, provides test-score information from the state’s report cards and explains what the scores mean. Dawson said the information isn’t as comprehensive as some report cards, but it complements the state’s report well.

Colorado—which received the highest marks from the Heritage Foundation—plans to launch a new report card web site this fall that will contain a wide range of information about teachers, such as the percentage of teachers at a school who are teaching out of their field, how long they have been teaching, and the turnover rate.

Colorado Gov. Bill Owens hails school report cards as “the cornerstone of accountability.” Colorado has allowed parents to send their children to any public school in the state since 1994.

The Colorado site also will contain school ratings, parent-friendly descriptions of school features, and the ability to compare different schools. According to the Heritage Foundation, however, the site could provide more information on student demographics.

“Today, 33 states post school report cards on the internet,” Dawson said. Some states’ school districts choose to do it, while others—such as those in California—are required by law.

School Wise Press is a for-profit site that offers report cards for 8,000 of California’s schools. Parents can compare schools in the same county using different variables such as test scores and student characteristics. The Heritage Foundation said the site is a little short on teacher characteristics.

Other model web-based report cards include GreatSchools.net, the Independence Institute’s Parent Information Center, and the state report card sites for Kentucky, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Milwaukee.

Links:

The Report Card Report
http://www.heritage.org/reportcards

American Association of School Administrators
http://www.aasa.org

Colorado’s school report cards (under construction until this fall)
http://www.state.co.us/schools/accountability_repo rt.htm

Just for the Kids
http://www.just4kids.org

School Wise Press
http://www.schoolwisepress.com

GreatSchools.net
http://www.greatschools.net

Parent Information Center
http://www.parentinfocenter.org