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City to roll out a new “parent-friendly” school progress report

After years of criticism that its school report cards are too difficult for most parents to understand, the city is redesigning the report cards that give each school a letter grade.

Starting this fall, the Department of Education will produce one-page progress reports that contain only the most important pieces of performance data about each school. The new reports are meant to deliver complicated accountability information “in a more parent-friendly way,” according to Phil Vaccaro, a representative of the department’s accountability office. Vaccaro presented a draft of the new report to the city school board yesterday.

The “progress report family summary” has the same content but a different design from the data-packed two-pager currently produced for each school. For example, instead of having eight different numbers to describe student progress, there is just one, the proportion of students who made a year’s progress in a single year.

A member of the school board, Dmytro Fedkowskyj, worked with the department to develop the new reports. “We need to present them in ways parents can understand,” he said, adding that parents who misunderstood the reports could make misinformed school choices.

Critics of the progress reports said the family summary might actually be too simple. Aaron Pallas, the Columbia University professor who also blogs on this site, said the new format actually represents a “step backward” because it obscures the way that schools are compared to other schools with similar demographics.

One of the “desirable” aspects of the original progress reports was that they showed how schools fared compared to similar schools as well as compared to all schools in the city, Pallas said. In its current form, the family summary shows only how schools compare to “other schools,” but does not specify which schools are meant. “I think it’s important to retain both types of comparisons, but it will be challenging to do that with this format,” he said.

The department will continue to produce the original reports, too, which offer more detailed information.

The family summary also doesn’t solve problems with the progress reports’ underlying formula, which isn’t changing at all this year. Critics of the reports, including Pallas, have said that they are not statistically reliable. 

Plus, some parents say the heavy emphasis given to test scores is misplaced. Anna Santos, a panel member from the Bronx who has three children in public schools, said she would like to see more weight given to the surveys that parents and teachers fill out and less weight given to test score results. (The city announced today that 850,000 parents, teachers, and students completed the surveys this year, comprising 59 percent of all eligible survey-takers. Of the parents, 94 percent said they were satisfied with their child’s school, according to the city’s press release (doc).)

Vaccaro said the department would hold focus groups with parents to refine the report over the summer. The department’s goal is ultimately to integrate the new reports into ARIS Parent Link, the recently launched data system that parents can use to their child’s scores, he said. Since the system’s rollout last month, about 120,000 parents have logged in, including 10 or more parents at 60 percent of schools in each borough, officials said.

Parent Accountability Report 2009-06-23