Report cards on schools? Demand complete picture

  • William Raspberry / Washington Post columnist
  • Monday, August 13, 2001 9:00pm
  • Opinion

WASHINGTON — Congress seems determined to enact report-card legislation — a law requiring school districts to tell parents how their schools are performing academically. The idea, of course, is to give parents the information they need to make wise schooling decisions.

Will it work that way? Unquestionably, in some cases. Say you’re preparing to move to a new town and you’re trying to figure out where to purchase your new home. Obviously you want to learn as much as you can about the schools your children will be attending.

On the other hand, if your kids are already attending a poorly performing school, you’re probably aware of that fact — and aware, too, that there’s not much you can do about it. It’s like learning from Consumer Reports that the vehicular lemon you’re stuck with has an unusually high frequency-of-repair ratio. School and district test scores will be valuable primarily to those families that already have options.

That’s one problem. Here, according to parent-training expert Dorothy Rich, is another: The reports won’t tell enough.

"There are lots of things besides test scores that parents really need to know — and that schools and school districts could be required to report," she said the other day. "Take the question of discipline. Wouldn’t the parent of a prospective student want to know how the school handled discipline problems? I’m talking about things as small as bullying and as large as Columbine.

"In every school, there are loads and loads of smaller incidents that can make the experience negative for many children. Wouldn’t you want to know what your school was doing to become a more civilized place? Test scores won’t tell you that."

Rich, founder and president of the Home and School Institute in Washington, D.C., believes parents would also want to know, in more detail than federal legislation is likely to require, about attendance. "There are a lot of attendance numbers people don’t want to talk about," she said. "How many kids register and don’t attend class? How many are tardy — in effect saying they don’t care enough about classes to get there on time. These are morale issues that can tell you an awful lot about a school."

She’d also require reports on such obviously important factors as class sizes, and on such subtler ones as the mix of old and young teachers, which, at the optimum, could provide a healthy combination of experience and energy, of solidity and continuity.

Anything else? "I’d want to know about the level of parental involvement in the school I was thinking of putting my kids in," she said. "How many parents come to at least one meeting a semester? How many meetings per parent? How many of them volunteer on a regular basis? You want to be in a school with high test scores, of course, but you also want to be in a school where kids go to class and are expected to be on time, where they get the attention they need and where other parents are involved in a concerted way."

And you’d want to know about grading practices. College recruiters quickly learn that an A from one school is a lot different from an A at another. Some high schools can graduate seniors with straight-A records who won’t get a look by the more highly selective schools. But it isn’t just for high-schoolers that grading policy is important, Rich says. Children learn early that cheap A’s are a signal that sustained hard work isn’t valued.

Along the same line, she said, parents should be told how many students try for the harder classes — higher-level math, languages, advanced-placement courses — and how many apply for college. "Schools often brag about the schools their graduates have gotten into, but what parents need to know is how many go to and succeed at four-year colleges and community colleges."

And above all, says Rich, parents need to know what the trends are. "If the trends are up, that means the school is getting better, that it might be doing something you’d like to be a part of. If the trends are down — even if the absolute ranking is fairly high — it might be a place you’d want to avoid."

Federally mandated report cards to parents? Bring them on, says this expert on parent education — but only if they tell parents what they really need to know. Test scores aren’t the half of it.

William Raspberry can be reached at The Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20071-9200 or willrasp@washpost.com.

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