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School Report Cards: Removing the Mystery and Adding Clarity

• Marilyn Dwyer

As a research coordinator at the Foundation for Excellence in Education (ExcelinEd), I am asked to do a wide variety of long and intricate projects involving education reports and data. But none of my research assignments intrigued me – or shocked me – as much as the request to visit all 50 states’ education department websites and pull their school report cards.

Federal law requires that each state publish an annual report card for each school in the state. The school report cards must contain demographic information and student performance data, as well as graduation rates, teacher quality data, and performance results from the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP).

I was asked to measure the length of time it took to find each report card and make note of how easy – or how challenging – it was to navigate from a state department of education homepage to the report card for a particular school. What I found was that some are significantly easier to find than others. But that is no surprise; many websites are vastly different – some are just more difficult to navigate. What really shocked me, though, was how difficult some of the reports were to understand once I did find them.

I’m not a parent, but in doing my research I tried my best to put myself in a parent’s position: how would I go about looking for my child’s report card and what could I learn about my child’s school?  What I found was that many of these states do a poor job of making clear to parents how their child’s school is performing.  For example:

  • Several states use vague indicators – such as using shapes or colors to define schools that are performing well or poorly – that are not clearly defined in a report card. Meanwhile, others use confusing jargon such “Met Annual Yearly Progress” without explaining what it means.
  • Many states do not describe their method of accountability, meaning parents would not be able to understand how their child’s school is doing. Some states that use vague indicators seldom make it clear if a triangle is better than a square or if blue is better than green. Some states use terms such as “need improvement” or “met expectations” but do not go further in their descriptions.
  • Many states’ report cards have an overwhelming amount of information, using several charts and descriptors that are not clearly defined or explained.

These findings indicate why the My School Information Design Challenge, fueled by ExcelinEd and Getting Smart, is so important. The Challenge has allowed great designers to take the information states are required to report and portray it in a format that is easy to understand and actionable for parents, policymakers and other stakeholders.

The two Challenge winners we have announced today – Collaborative Communications & Social Driver and Rennzer – have done just this.  Both winners prominently display the school’s grade, clearly show what that grade means, and what performance measures were combined to calculate that grade.  In addition, the designs allow users to drill down where they would like to see additional data or more detailed definitions. They also use color and interactive graphics to show trend data, make important data easier to understand, and allow for comparisons among local schools. And finally, the winning designs allow a parent, principal or advocate to access school information on a desktop, on a smartphone, or printed hardcopy – allowing them to share key school information over a variety of social media outlets.

To see more of our top submissions, please visit the full gallery at

Congratulations to our winning designers and to all who participated in this Challenge. Their work will help states transform their school report cards into a 21st century tool – and help ensure that, in the future, parents won’t struggle the way I did to find and understand essential information about the performance of their child’s school.

About the author

Marilyn Dwyer