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Who Wants Or Needs a 24-page Report Card?

The article headline said:
An overwhelming, yet useful report, but one has to ask, Useful for whom? Should parents have to hire a Certified Public Accountant to make sense of the report card on their children's school? Is this why fourth graders have to learn how to figure mean? So they can interpret the report card for their parents?

And with all this release of test scores and obsession with test scores, isn't it interesting that the College Board can get away with refusing to release their scores? As a private agency, they can make their own rules. Only public schools have to bow to the whim of the corporate-politico cabal.

In his early years as state education commissioner, Richard Mills used to talk of the need for easy-to-read school report cards carrying results of the latest state tests, which could be posted on a wall in every classroom.

These days, that would require a pretty big wall.

Seven years after Mills and his education department first began issuing annual reports on school performance, the "cards" have grown into full-fledged documents, many of more than two dozen pages in length. Contained within is an assortment of mean scores, passing percentages and performance indexes, together with an alphabet soup of terms such as AYP, AMO and PI that require glossaries to interpret.

Even veteran Long Island school administrators find the reports hard slogging. In recent years, a group representing Nassau County superintendents has put together a computerized slide show, for use in explaining what the scores and other statistics mean for local districts and schools. In its full version, this year's presentation requires more than 160 "slides." So producers have come up with a 20-slide version covering just the highlights.

"Rules are complicated"

"Otherwise, it simply becomes almost incomprehensible," said Charles Fowler, superintendent of Hewlett-Woodmere schools and president of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents.

You can't blame this entirely on the state. At the federal level, a new law known as No Child Left Behind has created its own set of annual performance targets and other requirements for schools that are covered in a separate section of the state reports.

"The rules are complicated, more complicated than we would like," said Martha Musser, the state director in charge of reports. "We're kind of in a bind, and I don't think we've found the perfect solution."

For parents and others trying to track academic trends in their schools, what's omitted from report cards can be just as important as what's provided. For example, there are no scores from Advanced Placement tests, which cover college-level material and have become staples in most Island high schools. Unlike state exams, AP tests are sponsored by a private agency, the Manhattan-based College Board, which refuses to make results public, on grounds some school districts would object to their release.

No, the report cards aren't perfect. Nonetheless, they do contain a great deal of useful information, for anyone willing to sift through the data. To help with this, Newsday published a summary chart on Thursday for all 126 districts on the Island. Additional data for 602 individual schools appears in this special section.

Merits of Regents

Included are results from English and math tests used to determine whether schools meet state and federal standards, along with other information of particular interest to parents. For starters, readers might check the column listing percentages of students who graduate with Regents diplomas. These credentials show that graduates have successfully completed sets of courses and state exams designed to serve as basic preparation for college.

Other columns list percentages of students planning to enroll in two- and four-year colleges and universities. When percentages of students earning Regents diplomas closely match percentages planning on college, this can be an indicator that schools are doing their job.

Rich student, poor student

Remember, though, that academic performance is affected by factors outside school, such as family income and educational levels. Students living in poverty typically do worse in school than those from more affluent homes for a wide variety of reasons, including health problems. Currently, a student from a family of four qualifies for free school lunches, if the family's annual income is less than $23,920.

That's why charts include a column with a poverty indicator, based on percentages of students whose low family incomes qualify them for free school lunches. Like other numbers in the chart, these indicators aren't perfect, because not all schools provide subsidized meals. Still, these numbers can help explain why some schools' scores are low. Conversely, high scores in schools with large numbers of impoverished students can be a sign that teachers and administrators there do exemplary work.
Copyright 2004, Newsday, Inc.

— John Hildebrand
An overwhelming, yet useful report


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