For the last three years, the Los Angeles Unified School District has been issuing multicolored, multilingual report cards on each of its hundreds of schools that is much easier to read than the often dense, multi-page School Accountability Report Cards mandated by the state.
The most innovative feature of the report card, issued in a one page, double sided 11-by-22-inch format, is that it includes a survey of parents, students and staff to gauge their attitudes about the school – giving a more three-dimensional picture of a school than is possible with test scores alone.
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For more than 20 years, school districts have been required to file School Accountability Report Cards – referred to as SARCs – according to specifications contained in Proposition 98, a school funding initiative approved by voters in 1998. In many cases, the SARCs have become overloaded with requirements and are not user-friendly for parents trying to decide to which schools to send their children.
In 2008-09, with help from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, and the California Community Foundation, LA Unified began producing its more abbreviated report cards as an alternative to the SARC, along with survey results.
"Our reports are designed to meet the needs of parents when they are selecting schools and provide data, which is more timely and likely to be most usable to parents, in the most user-friendly way," said Jeff White, an analyst in the district's Office of Data and Accountability, who has been working on the new report cards.
The purpose of the report cards, he said, is to help parents, as well as give school staff and other stakeholders information they can use to help improve their schools.
The report card survey attempts to answer the question, "What is it like to be at this school?" from the perspective of staff, students and parents.
- Students are asked whether adults know their names, whether the school is clean, whether they they feel safe while on campus and whether what they are learning takes a lot of thinking.
- Parents are asked whether they "feel welcome to participate at school," whether they talk with teachers about their children's school work and whether they feel their children are safe.
- Staff weigh in on issues such as whether they get the help they need to communicate with parents and whether they are proud of their school.
Louis FreedbergLunchtime at Marshall High in Los Angeles
One of the main challenges has been getting sufficient responses from parents so that survey results are valid.
In the elementary grades, children were given the surveys to take home. Surveys were mailed to parents of middle and high school students. But only about one in four parents responded.
This year, the district hopes to boost parent participation rates by sending surveys to middle and high schools as well, where staff will take responsibility for getting the surveys to parents.
What is far from clear is whether LA Unified's report cards could be replicated in other school districts around the state or whether LA is one of the few districts – or perhaps the only one – with the capacity to produce them, because of the district's massive size and administrative infrastructure.
The district has three analysts working on the project, in addition to a web and graphics design staff. "It is really labor intensive," White said.
However, school districts around the state for years administered an attitudinal survey, mainly to staff and students. Eight hundred or more of California's nearly 1,000 school districts participated in the California School Climate Survey, in addition to the California Health Kids Survey, both developed and administered by WestEd, a San Francisco-based research organization, on behalf of the California Department of Education. (More recently, WestEd also developed a California School Parent Survey.)
Thes surveys have been used mainly for research purposes. Until last year, school districts were required under the federal No Child Left Behind law to administer them. Now it is up to most school districts to decide whether to continue doing so. But WestEd's Greg Austin, who oversees the survey, said there is no reason that additional questions to assess school quality and effectiveness could not be added. The results could then be used in report cards of individual schools around the state.