A study by UCLA School of Law faculty and students found that the state’s School Accountability Report Card, or “SARC,” fails to serve the goal of informing parents and community members about the quality of their schools. The research assessed how well the State’s report card template conveys critically important information about school performance.
Based on the unanimous results of surveys, focus groups, and objective assessments of the SARC with a diverse range of parents and community leaders, the UCLA report concludes the SARC fails on several grounds: It fails to inform parents and taxpayers about the quality of their schools or identify areas for school improvement. The SARC also fails to tell California taxpayers whether the single largest portion of their tax dollars is being spent effectively.
“There is a lot of data on the report cards,” said Professor Gary Blasi, who supervised the study. “But there is very little information that ordinary parents and taxpayers can understand.”
The UCLA report, “Grading the Report Card: A Report on the Readability of the School Accountability Report Card,” used multiple methods to assess how well the SARC format (published by the California Department of Education) is understood by its intended readers – namely, parents and community members.
Computerized readability assessment programs commonly used to judge the education level required to understand text put the grade level required to understand the SARC at 17.2 years. The study determined that the average SARC is more complicated to read than such comparison documents as the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Instructions for Form 6251 –Alternative Minimum for Individuals, Microsoft Windows XP Software Driver Installation Instructions, or a commercial real estate lease form.
In another part of the study, volunteer members of two Rotary Clubs were asked to read sample SARCs and then asked questions based on their content. The results demonstrated that even well-educated, active members of the community could not determine the answer to simple questions about a particular school from the SARC, even when the information was purportedly well-labeled and explained. The Rotarians reported their experience with the SARC as “frustrating” and “useless.”
“Given their level of education and strong civic interest, we think these Rotarians should be better than average at understanding public documents. It is obviously the documents themselves that are failing to communicate accurate information,” said Blasi.
A third part of the study was based on in-depth focus groups with parents of school-aged children in Los Angeles. Parents with education levels ranging from some high school to advanced degrees reported difficulty making sense of the school report card. All expressed a desire to have a clearer, more useful document to help them make choices about where to send their children and how to improve their schools.
Educational reform groups working with both parents and community members also have thoughts about the School Accountability Report Card.
“The School Accountability Report Card is intended to be an important part of the educational accountability system used to inform parents and the rest of the community about how well a school is doing. However, the SARC’s potential is being lost on the difficultly to read the document,” said Mary Johnson, Director of Parent U-Turn in South Gate.
For the many parents and community members who do not read English, the confusing English text of the SARC is not the main problem. Census data indicates that 27 percent of households in California are “linguistically isolated,” meaning there is no individual in the household able to speak English very well. For these families, translating the SARC into accessible English is only a first step.
“Parents use the SARC to make judgments about student test scores, qualified teachers and our students’ ability to get into college prep classes. It is very important that the SARC can be easily understood and available to parents in their own language,” said Ariel Mendoza, a leader with Parents for Unity in El Monte.
“We believe the SARC is a good thing but the state should design a more comprehensible SARC that includes some of the issues parents have questions or concerns about. Parents want to be involved in schools but we need tools we can understand and an open environment where we can express our concerns,” said Doangola Gibson, a parent leader with Californians for Justice in Long Beach.
Given the importance of the SARC’s information about school quality and the taxpayer resources already invested in collecting and disseminating this information, UCLA researchers recommend that:
1. The State should draw upon outside expertise to fully assess the comprehensibility of the SARC.
2. Based on that detailed study and on recommendations from experts in preparing such documents, the State should design, test, and publish a more comprehensible SARC template for use by school districts.
3. The State should provide translation of the SARC into languages used by significant groups within each school district’s population.
The actual SARCs tested were taken from the Los Angeles Unified School District, the largest district in the State, which uses the State’s template. Districts are not required to use the State template, but most do.
To view a copy of the full report, “Grading the Report Card: A Report on the Readability of the School Accountability Report Card,” or a report summary, please visit UCLA/IDEA’s web site at:
The School Accountability Report Card template is available at: www.cde.ca.gov/ta/ac/sa/documents/tempword05.doc.