Ed Is Watching shares a brief history on the tension between privacy and accountability and why they support transparency on academic accountability.

Sometimes dreaded and sometimes eagerly awaited, report cards are an ever-present component in the world of education. A new kind of report card was released today, but before we shift our attention to it, a brief historical note is needed to demonstrate why it was necessary in the first place.

In the mid-1990s, then under the leadership of Tom Tancredo, the Independence Institute championed the nation’s first program of report cards aiming to provide parents with information not about their child’s performance in school, but instead about their school’s performance. The need to evaluate and publicize school effectiveness had always been there, but the passage of laws concerning open enrollment and charter schools brought about a new level of urgency when it came to the demand for data concerning the academic proficiency of schools and districts. And so, the production of these report cards, which Independence Institute began publishing in 1995, was soon taken over by the state during the governorship of Bill Owens.

The program was relatively short-lived, however, as it was altered significantly under the Ritter administration. The report cards moved online and the package of data made public became significantly less parent-friendly, though this is not to say that the information provided was not useful and valuable. We ought not to instinctively blame Democrats for altering—and perhaps weakening—the state’s academic accountability reporting, as the debates that underlie this particular area of education policy tend to cut across conventional partisan lines.

Over the years, as more new data emerged, so too did new policies, rules, and practices that in turn produced significant restrictions and limitations on the validity and usability of the statistical data in question. For example, in 2014 the Colorado Department of Education’s reports began to adhere to the principle of complementary suppression whereby subgroup achievement numbers would automatically be hidden if a larger group did not meet a minimum sample size. The state also follows further masking practices pertaining to some demographic and achievement data, all of which combine and compound to produce statistical data samples which cannot be used to arrive at reliable or precise conclusions.

Of course, these practices are not malicious or even entirely misguided, as they are in large part motivated by legitimate privacy concerns, and the tension between privacy and accountability is an issue that will continue to exist and will have to be grappled with for years to come. Indeed, the Colorado Department of Education should be praised for its continued awareness of this challenge. That said, in recent years there emerged in the education policy community a sizeable contingent of organizations and individuals asserting that the Department’s concerns over privacy had grown to such a degree that they’d begun to hamper most efforts to understand and improve school performance and accountability. This led to the establishment of the Right to Know Coalition, of which the Independence Institute is a member.

Launched by A+ Colorado, the Coalition is built around the fundamental belief that the state needs to strive for a balance between data reporting and privacy concerns which would allow parents and policy researchers alike to draw more meaningful conclusions about the performance of schools and districts. Our work with the Right to Know Coalition has not met with unequivocal support from most of our established allies in other areas of school reform, chiefly on the grounds of their unwavering commitment to individual privacy. Nevertheless, we continue to believe that some balancing of these concerns needs to be made if we wish to maintain a public education system that is accountable to both the students and the state’s taxpayers who fund it.

And so, back to report cards: On May 29, the Coalition released its report card, which evaluates and rates the state’s performance across several fields of openness and transparency in academic data exposure. We wish to highlight and echo the report’s findings, which hold that the state’s efforts do not meet expectations in three specific fields: “Focusing on Every Student,” “Accessibility for Students, Families, and Communities,” and “Furthering Learning and Understanding.” The first area of concern relates chiefly to the data suppression practices described above, while the last concerns the CDE’s practices when it comes to granting independent research requests. Here, we wish to focus on the second concern, namely the accessibility of the department’s data for students, parents, and communities.

While the political landscape has changed significantly since the 1990s when the Independence Institute published its own report cards, many of our motivations for academic accountability and transparency remain the same. While this may not be the case for some of our fellow Right to Know Coalition members, our championing of clear and comprehensive reporting is driven in part by our commitment to school choice, which we know cannot be effective without sufficient information. For this reason we believe that the state, which includes the State Board of Education, the CDE, the General Assembly, and the Governor’s Office, needs to continue to engage in meaningful conversations with parents and other relevant stakeholders in order to make its data more accessible. With that said, we know that the task it faces is not an easy one and therefore wish to applaud the Department for their continued efforts at improving its reporting practices.

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