Report cards for schools: they're as close to a silver-bullet solution for troubled schools as the 1990s has produced. However inadequate or flawed, they aim to supply what is in shortest supply in most school districts - reliable information about how children are doing.
Parents, teachers, and principals all have an interest in seeing students do well. But A's and B's aren't always a good indicator of what children know. The College Board, which oversees the SATs, for example, is currently investigating why grades are going up in city schools, while SAT scores are declining.
Moreover, nearly 3 in 4 parents say they know little to nothing about how their children compare with other students in the state, and even fewer claim any knowledge of how students compare nationally or internationally.
It's these gaps that are moving tests and data to the center of school reform. The numbers may look boring and they're certainly controversial, but you can't do much to improve schools until you know what needs fixing.
School report cards aren't a new idea. At the turn of the century, more than half the states set up education commissions to survey schools. No detail -even rating sanitary drinking cups - was too trivial to figure in.
By the time the idea was revived in the 1990s, computers made huge databases manageable and results accessible to a larger audience. Some 48 states now have state tests and 36 publish report cards, according to Quality Counts, an annual report by Education Week. President Clinton is urging Congress to mandate report cards. But while 19 states identify low-performing schools, only 13 ensure that parents see these reports.
Still, the mountain of data is opening a new frontier.
With the click of a mouse, University of Houston researcher Larry Toenjes calls up the performance of all schools in the city on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS), a required statewide test. At first, the results look familiar - overall, schools in poor neighborhoods have lower passing rates than schools in prosperous neighborhoods.
But what's critical for the future of reform are the exceptions: Many poor schools are doing much better on the TAAS than the schools in the wealthier suburbs.
One reason for this is that Texas is the only state that requires schools to report test results by race, ethnicity, and poverty level. For a school to achieve an exemplary rating, at least 90 percent of students in each group must pass the TAAS. Many suburban schools fail because they're not preparing minority kids to pass.
Moreover, the Texas system makes it easy to see which schools are inflating scores by manipulating the system. For example, Wesley Elementary, a high-scoring school in a poor Houston neighborhood, tests nearly all its kids, while some comparable schools inflate their scores by defining nearly 40 percent of their students out of the test. Wesley's scores are a rebuke to any school that "claims poverty or student disability as an excuse for poor performance," says Dr. Toenjes.
Other states have tougher tests and a higher bar for passing. Virginia, for example, set the bar high and 97.8 percent of schools failed in Round 1. Critics say Texas exams aren't rigorous enough, and top ratings are too easily achieved.
"Terms like 'exemplary' and 'recognized' give parents the belief that their children are more likely to succeed than the test indicates," says George Scott, president of the Tax Research Association of Houston and Harris County, which conducts its own analysis of state data. Jimmy Kilpatrick, a Houston parent whose education Web site has a national audience, notes that a school can receive exemplary status even if kids just barely pass.
But Texas authorities say their system is still a work in progress. What's important is to start measuring, and make sure the data are accessible. "The accountability system is an uphill battle," says Texas investment banker Charles Miller, who chairs the Education Committee for the Governor's Business Council. "Some people say we test too much. They don't understand that it's to make schools accountable, not to test the kids."
There is evidence schools are responding to new incentives. "The impact of the Texas system on how teachers and principals talk about their job is stunning. In California, all we hear is excuses.... In Texas, we hear, 'This is our job, we can do it,' " says Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust in Washington.