Comparable School Data Can Help City Leaders & Parents Across the Country

Comparable School Data Can Help City Leaders & Parents Across the Country
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Students arrive for class at Normandy High School in St. Louis on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2015. State officials released data that is used to evaluate and make accreditation decisions for districts like Normandy that have lost accreditation and as a result must pay tuition for students who decide to switch to better-performing schools nearby under the state's student transfers law. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

RCEd Commentary

The isolated way we collect education data actually provides us with no real information at all.

Business, civic, or media leaders often see data on a city's schools and wonder what, exactly, it means and how it compares to other cities.

For example, 85 percent of Dallas’ kids pass reading at a basic level in eighth grade according to Texas state tests – but only 33 percent of those same eighth graders are proficient in reading according to a national test. 

Which number is right? Are they measuring the same thing? How does the average teacher salary compare to other cities? How are leaders supposed to navigate these numbers, put them into context, and then make decisions?

In an effort to make sense of these data in both national and global contexts, the George W. Bush Institute has released the State of Our Cities report, which makes the information accessible to education leaders and community members. The information ranges from the number of schools and students, median family income and child poverty rate, teacher salaries, and after-school programs, in addition to student performance data such as test scores, graduation rates, measures of college readiness and comparisons of U.S. students to international peers through the accompanying Global Report Card.

This information can then be easily compared across cities and demographic groups within a city to get a broad picture of what is happening in a particular city’s schools. More importantly, it can lead to action plans where deficits are clear.

This report is a good start, but it is not the finish line. Education leaders in communities across the country must work together to methodically collect and compare information – and make it accessible and available to stakeholders.

Without these comparisons and collaboration across districts, siloed information is not useful for benchmarking progress. In Dallas, for example, five key points stand out for the Dallas Independent School District’s Hispanic students, who make up 70 percent of the district’s enrollment:

-- Hispanic high school graduation rates are headed in the right direction, with 87 percent of Dallas’ Hispanic students graduating from high school in 2013.

-- Dallas’ Hispanic students are keeping pace with and, in some cases, leading peers in comparable cities. For example, their high school graduation rates were higher than Hispanics in Houston and San Diego, to cite two comparable cities.

But here’s the worrisome part:

-- Reading and math scores for Dallas’ Hispanic students on Texas’ state achievement exams are trending downward. The results show that one-third of Hispanic students are not learning reading and math at grade-level.

-- Similarly, few of Dallas’ Hispanic fourth- and eighth-graders are on a college-level track when it comes to reading. Just 13 percent of Hispanic fourth-graders and 17 percent of Hispanic eighth-graders passed the respected National Assessment of Educational Progress exam at the proficient level, which shows they are reading at a level that prepares them for college. Those figures are alarmingly low for a city whose future rests in part upon students who are ready for some level of college beyond high school.

-- Middle school algebra completion rates show a deficit in a leading achievement indicator. Only 21 percent of Hispanic middle school students completed an algebra course in 2013-2014, the last year data was available.

That last indicator matters enormously, and not just for Dallas. Too many students across the nation graduate high school unprepared for the challenges of college and career.

Colleges see that every day in their remediation courses. Employers see it every day in positions left unfilled and in their retraining of workers. If students are not successfully completing algebra in middle school, the deck stacks against their future success. It becomes very difficult for students to get back on track to gain the knowledge and problem-solving skills that college demands and that the economy increasingly prizes.

Looking at achievement data like this reveal the questions we should be asking of ourselves and of our city’s education leaders. Which cities can we learn from? What successes should we celebrate and encourage? Where does my city need to focus significant resources (people, money, policies and time) to improve?  

The challenge for all of us is to bring all of our cities up to the level of those that are doing the best. Comparable data will help city leaders do that.

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