Students have always felt a flurry of anticipation just before report cards are handed out. This fall, school administrators and staff in Virginia will share in the suspense, when the state mails all parents a scorecard for their children's schools.
Data ranging from test scores to violence rates will be sent out by the state's Department of Education in a "parent-friendly" format, according to Margaret Roberts, a Virginia public schools spokeswoman.
Schools have long collected pages of statistics and information on their performance. But with an increased effort to promote accountability and better communication with parents, the emphasis now is on making such details less of a challenge for families to obtain and read.
In Virginia, parents will receive a simple but informative one-page summary of the last year's accomplishments.
Forty states, including Virginia, generate report cards at the school level for the public, according to a survey done by the Council of Chief State School Officers in Washington. Sometimes, however, parents must wade through reams of data to find essential information.
In the survey, researchers wrote that "states have taken a more active role in regularly reporting indicators of the status of public education" over the past 10 years. Virginia's report card is part of a push to raise learning standards and hold schools accountable for their progress, Ms. Roberts says.
The new one-page synopsis aims to make parents more aware of strong and weak points, leading the way toward more participation. "Through all the research over the years with all the new-fangled ideas in education, the single, consistent high correlation with school improvement is parent involvement," says Roberts.
But this is an ideal not easily met, she concedes, and one that has not been immediately triggered by other reporting systems around the country.
"Lots of parents don't pay any attention, which is what really concerns me," says Patty Neuwirth, president of the state PTA in Oklahoma where wholesale education reform in 1990 led to school report cards now sent home by each district. Reports include the usual test scores as well as teacher qualifications, socioeconomics, course offerings, and discipline rates.
"It's getting harder and harder to get parents in schools, but the parents who are involved are much more informed, ask more questions.... The report starts a conversation," says Ms. Neuwirth.
The way the reports have been presented by the states has mirrored the way they are used: one piece of a complex puzzle.
"I think it's a beginning and gives people in the community a little bit to put their finger on," says Richard Corwin, a longtime member of the Midwest City (Okla.) School Board.
"Accountability is very important, and these statistics are a part of accountability, but most people look at them as just one piece." This is appropriate, says Mr. Corwin, warning that focusing just on a statistic could make a school or district complacent or unfairly maligned.
This is the one concern administrators in Wisconsin and Oklahoma have although they use and support the report cards.
David McSherry, principal of Deerfield Middle and High Schools near Madison, Wis., cautions that by focusing too much on numbers, "you sometimes end up putting out little fires instead of looking at the big picture."
Wisconsin compiles a report packed full of information besides test scores, such as participation in extracurricular activities, staffing ratios, budget information, and post-graduation data. But it does not include demographic data, leaving readers to put the results into context themselves.
Numbers alone have given Milwaukee schools a bad rap, for example, according to Jane Shibilski, president of the Wisconsin Congress of Parents and Teachers.
"Milwaukee has always been pointed out as not performing, although I don't think that is true," she says. "Yes, some schools aren't doing what they should, some kids are failing. Yes, there are dropouts, but there are also bright spots."
These spots are not as easily captured on paper and impressions die hard, Ms. Shibilski says. Plus, most agree that socioeconomic factors make an often crucial difference in test scores and other achievement measures.
"The funding levels don't always reflect the quality of education in a district," explains Paul Pelnar, principal of Fort Atkinson High School, southeast of Madison. "Some wealthy areas are going to have higher results because of resources. The smaller more rural schools can't provide the same opportunities."
Despite the disparities, Shibilski says most Wisconsin parents she knows don't use the reports in part because they are satisfied with their children's progress. "It's a sign of the times. Parents are stretched every which way, so they don't sit down and analyze the way they should," she says. "Unless they specifically want to compare, they probably don't use [the reports]."
Similarly, parents in Appleton, Okla., take action only when something is going wrong, says Winnie Doxsie, chair of the Appleton Village Partnership, a coalition that keeps an eye on education. "People are concerned about funding and losing staff, what really affects them, but they don't look at the nitty-gritty."
Like other parents and administrators, PTA president Neuwirth believes that more information to parents is better whether or not it appears to have a decisive impact. She notes, "You shouldn't have to hide anything."