It’s a complicated business, telling people whether they are getting good value for their public schools and how well their students stack up against those across the street or the oceans. Just try to calculate the money, time, emotions and political capital that have been expended in Ohio debating and implementing state and federal mandates for reporting school performance in annual school report cards, and you get an idea what policymakers and educators mean when they talk about a high-stakes game.
Watching the process from the sidelines while the Ohio General Assembly revamped the state report card, you begin to appreciate why those involved, the policymakers and educators, seem to quibble endlessly about what factors to include and what weight to give those factors in the annual performance reports.
For instance, the 2001 No Child Left Behind law demands that for the public’s information, school report cards must include much more than blanket test scores. For a more accurate picture of the return on our education investment, the data must be sliced and diced to present the results from several vantage points: race and ethnicity; gender; native speakers and learners of English; special needs; and socioeconomic status.
Ohio includes graduation and attendance rates on its report-card list for good measure. And soon, with the approval of a new report card system last month, “college ready” and “career ready” will appear on the list.
All those factors are on the report card because they are supposed to tell us something significant, something we would not readily know about the way state and local school systems go about their functions and why the results break the way they do.
For instance, reporting separately on the basis of race or disability or gender, clearly, is about eliminating blind spots, raising the antenna against the discriminatory effects of certain policies and practices (say, assigning inexperienced teachers to low-income neighborhoods or tracking black and Hispanic students into low-level academic courses). More likely than not, graduation and attendance figures may offer a window on the value attached to “stick-to-it-ness,” the tolerance level in the school system for failure to finish.
And the socioeconomic factor? It could be the most revealing piece of information on a report card, the instrument to tease out the depth of endemic challenge in any particular school or district. Extensive research shows direct and indirect links between a student’socioeconomic status and school achievement. That a family’s social and economic standing is quite a reliable predictor of educational achievement is one of those things “everybody knows.” The odds are better than even that a financially secure child will have had early experiences that make passage through school easier.
Early childhood education programs such as Head Start have derived from the volume of such findings, showing fewer varied and mentally stimulating experiences in children from low-income households, delays in language and math skills and slower academic progress than their middle- and upper-income counterparts. Poverty-induced stresses in the home environment hamper intellectual development and aggravate problems that other households with more disposable incomes might be able to resolve in a timely fashion — maybe hiring a tutor to catch up or availing of counseling for behavior problems.
Socioeconomic status factors into so many measures of educational performance — from proficiency test scores to discipline and career options — that it bears asking what picture precisely of economic disadvantage (or advantage) and its consequences we should take away from this information on a report card.
After much work on such concerns, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the “nation’s report card,” is expanding its indicators for “socioeconomic status” (such standards as household income, and who is eligible for free or reduced-price school lunch). The aim is to reach a nuanced and more accurate view of the makeup of school performance by including in the SES measure a profile of resources, such as parks, libraries or museums, in a school and neighborhood.
Ofobike is the Beacon Journal chief editorial writer. She can be reached at 330-996-3513 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.