A Closer Look:
by Lynn Olson
ost states consider the reporting of information to be a central feature of their accountability systems. But it's not always clear how to do that in ways that are useful and that promote change.
So for Quality Counts '99, Education Week took a special look at school report cards in collaboration with A-Plus Communications, an Arlington, Va.-based firm that specializes in communicating complex educational issues, and two opinion-research groups.
First, the project gathered copies of school report cards from every state that has them; collected information about the reporting requirements in the 50 states; and examined the report cards published by individual districts and local newspapers.
But the project also sought to explore what the users of such documents--parents, other taxpayers, and educators--actually think of them. Are they providing the information that parents and taxpayers want? Are educators getting the feedback they need to improve their schools? Are the report cards clear and understandable?
To find answers to those questions, the project team conducted a series of small and large focus groups in selected sites around the country.
In September, Belden Russonello & Stewart, a Washington-based research and communications firm, conducted four small focus groups in Baltimore and Austin, Texas.
In each location, a session was held with about eight to 10 parents of public school children and another with taxpayers who do not have children or whose children are not currently in school. During the focus groups, a moderator asked a series of open-ended questions to generate a discussion about report cards.
Participants were asked to react to sample report cards from Connecticut, Louisiana, New York state, and Ohio. They were also asked about the type of information that they would want to judge their own schools or to hold their schools accountable.
Those small sessions were followed by a series of three large, electronic focus groups in Charlotte, N.C.; Colorado Springs, Colo.; and Worcester, Mass., conducted by Research/Strategy/Management Inc., an opinion-research company based in Rockville, Md.
Each of the three groups involved about 80 to 100 people, of whom about half were parents, one-quarter other taxpayers, and one-quarter public school educators. In those larger groups, each participant manipulated an electronic dial that enabled the project team to track reactions to specific report card formats and questions in real time, as the information was presented. The participants also answered general questions about accountability.
The participants rated the importance of various kinds of information for judging a school or holding it accountable. They were also asked to react to the Connecticut, New York, and Ohio report cards. And they looked at a prototype that the project team had devised, based on the findings from its earlier research.
Sites for the focus groups were selected because considerable efforts toward school accountability have been undertaken in their states or regions.
The responses do not reflect a nationally representative sample, but they do provide insights into what the various groups think about the report cards states now produce and how they might be improved.
Other materials prepared as part of this study include:
To order a copy of the video ($15 to cover duplication and shipping), "Reporting Results" booklet ($10 to cover duplication and shipping), the full 87-page research report ($15 to cover duplication and shipping), or the video (free), call A-Plus Communications at (703) 524-7325; or e-mail Adam Kernan-Schloss at firstname.lastname@example.org or Danny Markstein at email@example.com. Or, you can order these items directly from the A-Plus Communications' Web site: www.apluscommunications.com/aplus/order.html.
PHOTO: At focus groups around the country, such as this one in Colorado
Springs, Colo., participants used electronic dials to record their reactions and answer
Vol. 18, number 17, page 29