By Cindy Morley
Investigative Journalist for the Georgia Public Policy Foundation
Many agree that parents make the best decisions about their child’s education when they have reliable data: information they can use to compare the quality of school instruction, school climate, class sizes and more.
So what do parents really need to know about school performance to make the right decisions? While education experts disagree on exactly what information to make available to parents and family members, they all agree the key to making the right decisions for their children can come down to reliability and transparency from the reporting agencies. Specifically, information provided by local school boards, the Georgia Department of Education and the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement.
“Parents and family members making these decisions need information they can use and digest,” says Ben Scafidi, Professor of Economics at Kennesaw State University and a Senior Fellow with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.
“Parents care about so many more things than just test scores, and it is important to ensure they have the information they need. Hence, transparency is critical to the success of a universal choice system, and it is something that can be achieved in non-bureaucratic ways.
“However, it appears that powerful forces don’t want to publicize clear data on schools and their performance,” says Scafidi, whose credentials cover a lengthy career in Georgia public education policy.
Scafidi believes this obfuscation is not just a trend in Georgia but nationwide: “Educational agencies and departments are putting out more and more data, but the information is less and less useful to parents seeking to make the best decisions for their children.”
These “mountains and mountains” of information are too much for parents to decipher when trying to make the best decisions for their children, Scafidi says, emphasizing: “The information out there is not easy to understand and analyze for someone not in the business.”
One example is the state’s College and Career Readiness Performance Index (CCRPI) report, which he says includes “way too much information for parents and family members to break down as they attempt to make the best decisions for their children.”
The Georgia Department of Education web page describes the CCRPI as “a comprehensive school improvement, accountability and communication platform for all educational stakeholders that will promote college and career readiness for all Georgia public school students.”
“Educational agencies and departments are putting out more and more data, but the information is less and less useful to parents seeking to make the best decisions for their children.”
The “CCRPI reports are designed to provide information on the performance and progress of Georgia schools, districts, and the state on an easy to understand 100-point scale,” the page explains of Georgia’s accountability system that meets state and federal accountability requirements. Another page adds, “It is “Georgia’s annual tool for measuring how well its schools, districts and the state itself are preparing students for the next educational level.”
In his 2018 study, “Georgia 2020: Educational Opportunity for All K-12 Students,” Scafidi addressed the information included in the CCRPI report, such as the fact it actually uses an unwieldy 110-point scale. “How many families really use CCRPI scores when they decide where to live or whether to send their children to a specific charter school? The state of Georgia is 18 years into high-stakes testing and accountability. If it cannot measure individual school performance well by now, when will we stop waiting for Godot?”
Give Parents the Data They Want
“Parents care about good teachers,” Scafidi says. “They want to know what percentage of their teachers are getting positive ratings. They want to know what percentage of students from each high school go directly to college. They want to know class size, not teacher-student ratios.”
The COVID-19 pandemic turned traditional education on its head, as school districts vacillated among online, in-person and hybrid education models. Many parents chose to keep their children home and educate them outside the public school model.
For those families who do have the fortitude to inspect the CCPRI scores, the department website offers two recent caveats that demonstrate the labyrinth they must navigate to understand the information:
- The 2018 CCRPI uses an updated calculation approved as part of Georgia’s state plan for the (federal) Every Student Succeeds Act and “2018 scores are NOT comparable to any prior year.”
- On March 27, 2020, the U.S. Department of Education approved Georgia’s request to waive statewide assessment, accountability and reporting requirements for the 2019-2020 school year because of “widespread school closures” related to COVID-19. Thus, there are no 2020 CCRPI reports.
“Although families differ on the information they most value, districts and states could do a better job providing parents with a holistic picture of their educational options,” RAND researchers wrote in a 2017 U.S. News and World Report commentary.
“While federal law requires schools and districts to provide parents with information about their schools, how the information is provided (such as websites, report cards, pamphlets) and what is included varies dramatically.”
Overwhelmed by Information
David Chastain, a member of the Cobb County Board of Education since 2015, concurs. He believes parents may be overwhelmed by information they are unable to interpret or, alternatively, websites that lack the information parents really need and want to know.
“Parents need more than just test scores. There are better standards of comparison out there, and we need to ensure that the information being collected by the state DOE about the schools, teachers and districts is being reported,” Chastain says.
“Parents need to look at all the important data and information, not just the green, yellow and red dots they’re getting now. I would think it is important to know the academic achievement of the teachers, administration and staff at each school, the average tenure of the administrators, the average class size.”
"Parents need more than just test scores."
While most Georgia parents use the state Department of Education and the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement as their resource, many mention “information overload” and an inability to navigate the system.
Recently, the Georgia Department of Education introduced Georgia Insights, an initiative “focused on improving the clarity and accessibility of district and school-level data through public-friendly and easy-to-use dashboards.”
According to the website, “Georgia Insights utilizes the data the state already collects and presents it using clear, easy-to-understand visuals. By displaying the data in a streamlined, usable and useful manner, we hope to equip educators, parents, and communities with the tools they need to enact positive change in their schools.”
Needs More Work
Scafidi maintains the current systems are too complicated for most parents and families. “I believe it all comes down to the KISS theory: Keep it Simple, Stupid.”
He believes data should be focused on a few issues:
- What percentage of students are exceeding standards.
- What percentage of students are experiencing a year’s worth of learning from one school year to the next.
- What percentage of students go directly to college, and what ratio of students graduate from college in six years.
“The bottom line,” Scafidi says, is that “parents need information and data they can use, not just information overload.”
Meg Hampton, a retired Marietta police officer, is helping raise her two young granddaughters. Hampton regularly receives emails, voicemails and texts from the middle school and elementary public schools they attend in Cobb County. But they are “general morning announcements,” she says. She frustrated by what she considers “a lack of student-specific information.”
“It’s up to me to go online and navigate the system to find out if either of my granddaughters are having any problems. That’s not an easy task for a grandmother. It’s like jumping through hoops and learning to maneuver a system I know nothing about.
“What ever happened to report cards? They don’t send those out anymore? And what happened to parent-teachers conferences?”
Hampton’s oldest granddaughter, a seventh-grader, opted to attend classes virtually. The younger granddaughter is in elementary school and is attending school in person.
“I am not as worried about the older girl; she will let me know if she has any problems. But I would like more information about how the younger granddaughter is performing in class.
“I know my situation is a little different because I am a grandmother, trying to maneuver the system. But I am trying to make the best decisions for them, and I feel like I have been thrown in without a lifejacket,” Hampton says.