Rethinking School Report Cards


By Melany Stowe

Stowe QuoteAs a communications professional for multiple school districts, I was tasked annually with deciphering school and district report card data. I considered it a challenge to condense 18 to 22 pages into an accessible and relevant one-page takeaway for parents and community members. Moreover, the data being reported was not personalized or engaging; it wasn’t student specific and the only comparisons being made were with the entire state. Additionally, many school report cards were reflective of the past instead of including current results and focusing on future growth.

Despite these challenges, being aware of and understanding the state of schools is essential for engaging communities in the work of schools, ensuring transparency about strengths and opportunities, and establishing a shared responsibility for student performance. That’s why when the Foundation for Excellence in Education recently facilitated a national challenge for designers to redesign a school report card, I was excited about the opportunity to begin with a blank page. However, I quickly realized that designing a user-friendly school report card is the easy part; determining what should be measured and reported is the challenge we must address collectively.

Before designing my report card, I decided to carefully analyze every state’s current school report cards. I examined rating systems, methods used for reporting, differences in descriptions and indicators, online accessibility, emphasis of particular data, ability to drill down data, and the use of graphics.

Key Takeaways from My Research

  1. There are 30 different rating systems across the states: stars, colors, letter grades, number variations, word descriptions, etcetera. Some states have no evident rating systems or only use the federal Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) designation.
  2. States with similar rating systems vary greatly in their calculation of results. For example, states with letter grade ratings are determining schools’ grades based on different points/percentages and measures. In other words, an “A” in one state is not calculated the same as an “A” in another state.
  3. Not all report card data are created equal. Some data are included in school ratings; other data are provided for informational purposes only.
  4. School report cards range from 1 to 24 pages. All are available online with some featuring higher levels of engagement and the ability to drill down for more information and explanation as needed.
  5. School report cards vary in their effectiveness at conveying both current results as well as future progress. There is a significant difference between a health exam, which is focused on preventing problems from occurring and finding them early if they do occur, and an autopsy, which is a snapshot and report of what occurred in the past. A school report card should more closely resemble a health exam, taking into account prior data but also focusing on the future.

My research did not conclude with finding a perfect report card, but it reinforced my belief that school report cards and accountability measures should not require a communications professional to decipher them. In addition, all school report cards, regardless of the rating systems they use and the way they present the data, should be developed collaboratively, particularly in the selection of measures, and should be clear to all stakeholders if understanding and growth is expected to occur.


Melany Stowe serves on the Virginia ASCD Board of Directors and is a 2013 ASCD Emerging Leader who enjoys all aspects of a worthwhile vision.


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