Web-Based School Reports Cost Less and Are Easier to Understand

Most schools across the nation have slashed printing budgets — along with other non-classroom related allocations — but one upside is that more schools are moving away from the eye-drooping printed annual reports, which are costly to print, to Web-based interactive school budgets and school progress reports.

A recent example is SchoolView, a Colorado Department of Education (CDE) Web-based tool that allows school administrators, teachers and parents to access and compare the academic performance of their school to other schools and districts across Colorado. Videos guide users through data that otherwise may be ignored under the gray of printed reports. And in the future it may allow parents to interact and share their thoughts regarding school improvements.

At the administrative level, the superintendents have access to data from the state to the individual student level, and they may grant extensive access to a lower level administrator, teacher or whomever needs information about a school, class or student.

"School administrators increasingly want parents to interact with data" generated by the schools, says William Bonk, Principal Longitudinal Growth Consultant at CDE, “instead of being only passive recipients of the data."

Before switching to SchoolView, CDE administrators would produce annual accountability reports as PDF files in a single-sheet tri-fold format. While those static PDF files offered a simple one page report, they had the disadvantage of offering too much data. Also, those files may not have had the required data due to the limited space available to represent all the available data. This all-in-one Website replaces the old mechanism of delivering this data.

Along with a more dynamic delivery system, it saves money. Before SchoolView, CDE would generate accountability reports, about 1 million would be printed at the district level, deliver them to individual schools and distribute them to the individual. SchoolView eradicated this $290,000 printing and delivery process.

Four easy-to-access areas greet the end user. Those areas include the Colorado Growth Model tool that delivers annual academic achievement data using an interactive graphical tool. Other areas allow users to download annual budget reports, learn how to use the Colorado Growth Model and give feedback about the project. "This is more interactive," says Bonk, "than downloading a PDF report, printing it and passing it out."

The Website strives to turn the colorless academic growth data into stories using all the tools the Internet has to offer — video, audio, color charts and interactive graphs. "Most people are not used to statistical data, to thinking about data or manipulating data," says Bonk. So these tools can turn statistical data about a school district or school's effectiveness, academic improvements and individual achievements into simple stories.

One example of a story is the introduction to the Colorado Growth Model. A four-part video compares academic progress with the sport of high jumping. Then, a user can enter a demo version of the Colorado Growth Model tool, and the user is guided through the process with online tutorial videos. Since "we are trying to communicate with people who have not thought about academic growth in this way before," says Bonk, these videos and tutorials are as simple to understand as possible.

But simple does not mean easy, all these videos and tutorials were produced by experts who critiqued, with the end user in mind, every aspect of the video. Designing, creating and laying out these stories is one disadvantage of using this technology. Also, when producing graphs, it is difficult to plot all the data into one graph for the state of Colorado, says Bonk, only when the data can be plotted can it be presented as a graph.

The final result of the Colorado Growth Model tool has been different then when first envisioned. The end-user experience, Bonk says, is limited by the finance and resources at the disposal of the development team. "The tech people are limited by the [technology infrastructure] and the amount of money they have at their disposal," says Bonk. “If you don't have enough resources it can create a technology bottleneck."

On the other hand, when data is presented this way, the user can instantly become an active participant in the data delivery process. "Parents who have not used the tool" says Bonk, "take a look at the tool and understand intuitively how to use it." The specific data can be personalized by the end users — administrators, teachers, parents and other consumers — to create an interactive report.

Sergio Mosqueda is freelance writer from Mississippi who has written numerous article for educational publications.