of Testing Data Buries U.S. Schools
Complex results, errors delaying state report cards.
by Stephanie Banchero, Chicago Tribune, November 26, 2003
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are so overwhelmed by the data they must collect under federal
education reform that many are releasing "school report cards"
riddled with errors or delayed for so long that the information
is virtually useless to parents and schools.
From Utah to Pennsylvania, education officials have been trying
to analyze mounting piles of student test scores and teacher
competency statistics and finding the task far more costly and
time-consuming than they imagined.
Illinois education officials spent $845,000 on a new reporting
system, but after repeated problems with the data, they released
detailed information to districts only Tuesday--nearly a month
after schools were legally bound by state law to publish it and
eight months after students took the tests. Even now, some key
analysis is missing.
The public reporting of the data is meant to help parents and
other taxpayers make decisions based on the performance of
schools and districts. If the information is not released until
the school year is half over, parents are less likely to switch
campuses or demand a better-prepared teacher.
The accuracy of the state report cards also is vital because
schools, districts and states that fail to measure up can face
sanctions as serious as school closings under the federal No
Child Left Behind Act, which became law early last year.
The law does not set a date for when the information must be
made public, but federal officials had hoped state report cards
would be published before the start of a new school year. Many
states have failed to meet that goal, and others have made
mistakes while trying.
In Louisiana, education officials sent out hundreds of
error-ridden school report cards after a computer glitch
incorrectly indicated whether groups of students had met state
standards. Utah is still struggling to crunch the numbers and
get them to parents and schools.
And even though Illinois districts now have the report card
data, they have until Dec. 19 to distribute it to parents.
"A lot of states were not very well-prepared for what the law
requires," said Bob Linn, co-director of the National Center for
Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing. "We
should expect some delays because it takes awhile to adjust to a
new system, but I am surprised at how long the delays have
The federal law requires states to collect and analyze data on
student test scores, graduation and attendance rates, and
teacher competency levels. States must send the information to
school districts, which then must provide it to parents.
Many states, including Illinois, have produced such report cards
for years, but the law mandates more detailed reporting. For
example, states must list student achievement and test
participation rates by ethnic group, income level,
special-education status and English language proficiency. They
also must collect data on whether teachers are fully licensed.
If even one subgroup of students does not meet state standards,
the school is placed on a warning list. If the subgroup
continues to fail, the school can face sanctions. The same
sanctions also apply to districts.
Across the nation, there are as many reasons for the report card
delays as there are delays:
Students made errors when checking their ethnic background on
test booklets. Teachers did not ensure that licensing files were
up to date. School officials failed to properly classify student
income level and special-education status. And states were not
equipped to handle the voluminous data.
In Pennsylvania, districts submit teacher-licensing data in the
spring. If a district files incomplete or erroneous information,
the state flags it to local officials, said Brian Christopher,
spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
In years past, districts simply ignored the notice because no
sanctions were associated with low teacher-competency rates. But
the federal law requires schools to notify parents if an
unlicensed educator teaches their children.
Christopher said that days before Pennsylvania officials were
set to release the state report card, officials pulled parts of
it after nearly 100 districts contended the teacher licensing
numbers were incorrect. "Now that there are federal sanctions
associated with this data, I guess people are starting to take
it seriously," Christopher said.
Illinois experienced myriad problems with its data.
State officials found several cases where a student was labeled
African-American on the math test booklet but was marked white
on the reading exam. Many schools failed to identify whether
students were low-income, making it impossible to determine if
the school tested 95 percent of its poor children, as required
by the federal law.
Lynne Curry, deputy superintendent for the state board of
education, said districts statewide made thousands of data
errors. State board employees were forced to call more than 300
districts to verify data.
Similar problems cropped up last year, but no one bothered to
fix them because sanctions didn't kick in for most schools until
"We preached to school districts about this last year, about how
important it was for them to be accurate," Curry said. "But
until the rubber meets the road, people don't seem to care all
State officials blamed the delays in part on Deloitte Consulting
of Chicago, the firm hired to develop the report card this year.
The firm missed deadlines and created error-ridden documents,
Curry said, and board employees spent weeks correcting the
But Larry Ascough, spokesman for School District U-46 in Elgin,
said the information is so late this year, the point is moot.
"This information is history," Ascough said. "These kids took
the test ... months ago, and we already are gearing up to take
the next state test in a few months. I'm not sure anyone even
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