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When researching public schools, there is an overwhelming amount of information and data available to parents.

Data can be a good starting point for deeper conversations, but test scores and attendance figures won’t give a complete picture of a school’s quality or whether it’s the right fit for your family.

Just as you wouldn’t get heart surgery because of a high cholesterol score, parents shouldn’t pick schools based on numbers, said Paige Kowalski, executive vice president for the Washington-based Data Quality Campaign.

“The data you’re going to find on a school report card, that’s the annual checkup. It doesn’t tell you what is wrong or how it went wrong, it shines a light that there’s a problem and gives you some direction,” she said. “My most important advice is look at sources of information out there and go visit the school, talk to teachers, students, parents and the principal. Use the data to ask questions.”

The Post-Dispatch’s updated St. Louis School Guide is designed to help parents get started. It parses Missouri’s data into a user-friendly format, with student-to-teacher ratios, enrollment and demographic information, and the most recent test scores in English, science, math and social studies for all public and charter schools.

The online guide also provides a tool to compare schools or districts side by side. The “About” page includes a glossary to help parents wade through the many technical terms used in school assessments.

Annual report cards

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 requires states to distribute annual education report cards with thousands of data points on school performance and safety.

In its review of the state report cards, the Washington-based Data Quality Campaign praised Illinois for going beyond test scores and demographics. Its extra information on schools includes culture, teacher collaboration, administrator effectiveness and family involvement.

Most other states have room to improve with their presentation of data, according to the group’s analysis. In Missouri, frequent changes to curriculum requirements and standardized tests have made it difficult to compare schools year over year.

Yet growth, or improvement measures, are more revealing than end-of-year test scores, Kowalski said. For example, if a school’s third-graders start the year at a kindergarten level in English but improve to a second-grade level by the end of the year, that indicates strong teaching even though the overall scores will not show proficiency.

In the last 10 years, Missouri teachers have had to adjust lesson plans to fit three different state standards for curriculum and prepare students for four different tests. The current Missouri Learning Standards outline the skills and knowledge students should have by grade level. Districts are then charged with creating the curriculum to match the standards.

For larger school districts, teams of teachers can tackle individual subjects and may be able to roll out a new curriculum within months. But for smaller districts, individual teachers may be rewriting the curriculum themselves.

Wright City Superintendent David Buck said each rewrite takes a lot of focus and energy from the entire staff.

“We only have so much capacity,” Buck said. “And it takes away from instructional practice. We’re just now getting back to that focus.”

‘Kind of crazy’

Kevin Freeman, director of school improvement for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, admits it’s all “kind of crazy.”

The state education department has no plans for more changes to tests or curriculum standards, Freeman said, but the Missouri Legislature drives education policy.

“While I would hesitate to try to predict the future and bet a whole lot of money on it, I believe that with Missouri-written standards and assessments in place, that we will have stability,” Freeman said.

The multiple changes to standards and assessments have also delayed the release of the data. Annual Performance Report scores for 2017-2018 didn’t come out until February. The year before, they had been released in November.

When new tests are given, Freeman said, it brings additional legwork for education department staff. They must determine new threshold scores for levels of achievement, set standards and analyze the exams to make sure test questions perform like they are expected to.

Missouri Assessment Program scores for English and math tests taken this spring should be available by late summer, Freeman said. Scores for science, which had a change to the test, will not be available until later.

The annual performance reports for each district should be available by the fall, Freeman said.

The changes and delays have been frustrating for district administrators, said Susan Downing, director of communications for Ladue Schools. With scores coming at the end of the school year, it’s too late for teachers and administrators to change focus or look for areas to improve.

“The year is over, so it’s really hard to then say, let’s spend a whole lot of time figuring out what this means,” Downing said.

An informal Post-Dispatch survey of parents on school choice found mixed feelings about test scores and other performance data. Some parents use them as the top standard when judging school quality. Others said they are more concerned with a school’s Advanced Placement course offerings or arts programs.

Nancy Pohlman of St. Charles said her family chose where to live based solely on a school district. Her daughter will be starting kindergarten this fall at Becky-David Elementary in the Francis Howell School District.

To decide on a district, Pohlman looked at state test score data and community rankings on real estate websites. Pohlman agreed that school visits are also crucial to gauge suitability.

“You can get a lot of information from print and online, but until you meet somebody, you don’t know the character of a school,” she said. “You know when you see the kids, you can see the rooms, the teachers, you can look at the kids’ work in the hallways. The paperwork will never give you the full picture.”

Janelle O'Dea is a data specialist and reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Blythe Bernhard is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.