When Chelsea Roberts was deciding where to send her son to high school, her goal was to find a school where her son would succeed.
“I don’t ever want to set my baby up to fail,” Roberts said. “If that means that I have to go to a different school, move to a different district, then that’s what I’ll do.”
For Roberts, who lives in Cleveland, that meant looking at school test score data. And at the magnet school her son ended up at, she liked what she saw on school report cards at the Ohio Department of Education website.
Math scores were up. Reading scores were up. Everything was moving in the right direction, she said.
“I wanted my children to be safe and nurtured and cared for,” she said. “I wanted my children to know, ‘Yes, you will learn, but yes, you are loved.’”
If test scores were easy for Roberts to get her hands on, finding data about how welcome children feel at school is nearly impossible. The state has surveyed students and teachers about how they feel about their schools. Although many parents would find the survey results useful in deciding what school district to live in or whether to choose a certain charter school, the state doesn’t make that information public.
It’s a good time to ask whether Ohio is giving parents the information they want about their kids’ schools.
This year, the Ohio Department of Education changed its method of grading schools, issuing for the first time letter grades from A through F. The grades replace old labels ranging from “Excellent with Distinction” to “Academic Emergency.” Both the old and new report cards were grounded largely in standardized test score data. State policymakers say the new A-F system is easier to understand and does a better job of measuring the areas that really matter.
“Our goal is to create transparency for our customers–Ohio’s taxpayers and moms and dads,” state school Superintendent Richard Ross said earlier this year.
But do these report cards really answer parents’ questions? To find out, we asked StateImpact Ohio readers and public radio listeners what kinds of things they want to know about their schools. We also asked parents at a charter school open house in East Cleveland, where we talked with Chelsea Roberts and other parents.
Few people said school test scores were the only thing they wanted to know about a school.
Instead, most parents emphasized things like if children are happy at school. Do children feel safe? Do they feel like teachers care about them? Parents mentioned academics too, but not typically in terms of test scores. What they want to know is whether schools prepare kids to go to college or get good jobs.
What You Want to Know About Your School
StateImpact Ohio asked readers and listeners: What do you actually want to know about your local schools?
It turns out most of the answers aren’t on the state’s annual school report cards. So we tracked down some of the most commonly requested information for you:
- School discipline: Look up your school and see how often students are disciplined for fighting, drug use and other infractions.
- College readiness: Look up your school and see how many students attend higher education and how ready they are for college.
- School climate data:
The Ohio Department of Education collects data about how students and teachers view local schools, but to date has not responded to a request for the data made under Ohio’s public records laws or provided a reason for not releasing the data.[See update here.]
Over the past two decades, American lawmakers have increasingly decided that the best way to evaluate a school’s performance is to look at student performance on standardized tests. The school report cards required under the No Child Left Behind Act focus on that test data.
State report cards are intended to help districts leaders and policymakers figure out which schools are “failing.”
But they are also promoted as a tool for parents to use in judging how good a job their children’s schools were doing—and in some cases as a tool to use in picking a school for their children.
It’s one set of data for two very different purposes.
Competing with the world
So what’s the difference between how parents grade schools and how the state grades schools?
“The actual difference is that most parents want a school setting for their children that will allow children to grow and develop in all the ways that we think might be important, which include things like social development, emotional development, moral development, even physical development,” said Aaron Pallas, a professor of sociology and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College.
That basically means focusing on whether students can read and do math.
That focus is partly a result of a long-running national movement to make sure American kids can compete with kids internationally.
And it’s partly a result of the No Child Left Behind Act.
The law set a national goal of having all students pass state reading, math and science tests by 2014—though the Obama administration recently allowed states to dial back that goal.
So in Ohio and other states, governments grade schools largely by applying formulas to student test score data. They end up with a series of state grades that policymakers say sum up a school’s performance.
But that simplification doesn’t necessarily make things easier to understand.
“It’s way too complicated and no one really understands it,” Pallas said of the typical school accountability system.
Digging for data
When we asked people what they wanted to know about their schools, here’s what they told us:
“I really don’t care how well children can do on a test. I am more interested in if the kids are learning, engaged, and (gasp!) having fun.”
“Are students engaged, curious and happy? (Staff, too!) Does the school actively encourage and model behaviors that support positive relationships? Are the arts valued and encouraged? Is there foreign language education in the early grades? Are the students given the opportunity to develop hand-on skills?“
“School climate! Strength of relationships, emotional & physical safety, joy of learning, creativity, student/parent/teacher satisfaction.”
“I would look at the two reasons we started public education (1) producing young adults with the ability be good citizens and (2) prepares them to be productive (ready to work).”
Here’s the surprising thing: The Ohio Department of Education actually does collect data that could help answer some of those questions.
But that information doesn’t show up on official Ohio Department of Education school report cards. Schools don’t get graded on it. And in some cases, the department does not make the information public.
- Schools report school disciplinary data to the state and federal government. You can find that information here.
- The state tracks how well schools prepare kids for college. Eventually, that data will be part of Ohio Department of Education report cards. But for now, you can find it here.
- And the Department of Education used part of its $400 million federal Race to the Top grant to hire the Pearson Foundation to conduct surveys that asked students and teachers how they feel about their schools. The Pearson Foundation is a nonprofit funded by the international, for-profit education company Pearson PLC.
About 580 schools across the state participated in 2010-11, the first year the surveys were administered.
Those surveys asked students whether school was a welcoming and friendly place, whether teachers made school an exciting place to learn and whether teachers believed in them and expected them to be successful.
School staff answered similar questions.
But if you were hoping to see just how friendly and welcoming your local schools seem to students and teachers, you’re out of luck.
The Ohio Department of Education did not respond to a Sept. 18 public records request for the survey results.In a response to a public records request, the Ohio Department of Education said it doesn’t have copies of survey results for individual schools.
And the Pearson Foundation told us we could not see any information about individual schools.
That information, a Pearson Foundation spokesperson said, is “confidential.”
Update on school climate surveys: The Ohio Department of Education pays the privately operated Pearson Foundation to conduct surveys of how students and teachers at hundreds of schools across Ohio feel about their schools. The day after this story ran, the department responded to a Sept. 18 public records request for district- and school-level survey data.
The Ohio Department of Education said it does not have that data. Although the department pays the Pearson Foundation to conduct the surveys, the department does not require the Pearson Foundation to supply the department with copies of district- or school-level survey results. To date, the Pearson Foundation has refused to release the survey results.