Page last updated at 15:43 GMT, Friday, 13 March 2009

Will reports end school tables?

By Mike Baker

report card mockup
Mockup of what a card might be like

The government will shortly announce whether every school in England is to get an annual report, including a single overall grade.

The period for consultation on ministers' proposals for school report cards, designed to give parents a simple snapshot of every school's performance, has just ended. Decisions are imminent.

Teachers' leaders have been hostile to the idea that the report cards should include a single grade, such as A to F, to encapsulate a school's overall performance. But ministers want a report that is easily comprehensible for parents.

At their annual conference, members of the Association of School and College Leaders are debating school report cards with a senior government advisor, Sir Tim Brighouse.

When the government announced its proposals in December, it cited the reports used in New York City, which include a single overall grade from A to E, with an F for "fail".

But the use of a single overall grade in New York is still new and remains controversial. Elsewhere in the USA, school report cards shun the idea of a single overall grade.


The New York City education department introduced its new grading system in 2007. It is a high stakes system with clear consequences based on each school's grade.

Schools that get an A or a B are eligible for rewards, with bonuses for principals and teachers.

By contrast, schools that get D or F - or even three Cs in a row - face consequences including changes in school leadership or school closure.

The report card system inevitably focuses attention on the failures. The headline in the New York Times, when the first report cards were issued, was: "50 New York schools fail under new rating system".

The New York City report cards are certainly clear and easy to read. Take the report on Stuyvesant High School, which received an A grade in 2007-08. The overall grade is in large, block type at the top of the two-page report.

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The overall score is based on three elements: the year-on-year progress made by students in annual tests (worth 60% of the total); success in graduating students (25%), and the school environment - based on parent and student surveys and other data such as attendance (15%).

The second page of the report gives a detailed breakdown of the scores and comparisons with all other schools in the city and with other schools of similar background and intake.


Supporters of report cards argue that they are a fairer reflection of school performance than simple league tables of exam results, since they take account of a wider range of indicators and also measure pupil progress not just raw scores.

But the New York City experience suggests that it is the overall grade that really counts.

The City's mayor, Michael R Bloomberg, credits the report cards with improving overall school performance by allowing "parents to be stronger advocates for their children and principals to be better managers of their schools".

He also highlights year-on-year improvement. In the second year of the reports, published last September, 58% of schools either moved up one grade or remained at grade A. All the schools that had received an F the previous year had improved.

However, ominously for the city's school principals, the mayor also announced that, to maintain progress, he was "increasing the minimum score required for schools to earn grades A, B, C and D".

More complex

The New York City model is, though, not the only one used in the USA, where report cards have become widespread.

While other states, such as Michigan, have also used a single "composite grade", others shun the notion of summing up school performance in this way.

In Illinois, for example, school report cards are much more complex. Take the 2008 report on Addison Trail High School. It runs to nine pages, with no overall grade.

The report covers a range of indicators: a profile of the students, including ethnicity, attendance, and family income; average class sizes; teachers' qualifications; the school budget; academic results; and pupil progress measures.

School report cards are even more detailed in New York State where, for example, the report on Albany High School runs to 15 pages. The Accountability and Overview Report covers a mass of performance data, from pupil suspensions to teacher turnover.

Within the main body of the report there is a "traffic light" system, which rates schools from green ("in good standing") to red ("requiring academic progress").

For many education experts, this more complex report probably seems fairer than the single grade given to New York City schools. Parents, though, may see it differently.

The New York State report is, frankly, difficult to read and the sheer complexity makes it hard to compare one school with another.

Too complex

And, for England, this is the rub. School report cards could bring a better and fairer way of measuring school performance, although it is interesting to note that there are currently no proposals for report cards in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - where league tables are no loner published.

In England the cards could save us from simplistic league tables and an over-reliance on test scores.

But if they are too complex they will never succeed in replacing the tables and parents, ministers, and the media will continue to turn to something simpler.

Successful report cards will have to be a trade-off between fairness and simplicity.

At one extreme, the existing league tables based on raw results, with no account taken of pupil background or progress, are blatantly unfair. Moreover they tell us nothing about what really matters: a school's effectiveness.

At the other, very complex "contextual value added" league tables are hard to comprehend. Moreover, they still ignore a whole range of school achievements that are not measured in test scores. Parents care about these other achievements.

So report cards offer a real opportunity for improved school accountability.

But if they are too crude they may frighten schools into a narrow, regimented focus on tests scores.

If they are too complex, they will be ignored leaving the pubic focus on existing narrow measures such as raw exam results.

The devil will be in the detail.

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