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The Value of a Report Card
Goals of the Report Card
Description of the Report Card
State Higher Education Policy
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The Value of a Report Card as a Policy Tool

Students, workers and families who are considering their options for college can examine a wide range of institutional rankings and comparisons. But state leaders cannot now obtain meaningful comparative measures of their state's performance in higher education. A state-by-state performance-based report card is the most effective way of providing state policy leaders with the impetus and information they need to improve public policies regarding higher education.

Several researchers have studied the use and effectiveness of report cards as policy instruments. William Gormley and David Weimer observe in Organizational Report Cards that comparative report cards, in defining the benchmarks of good performance, garner the attention of policymakers and the public:

  • Legislative priority-setting is guided in part by the relative performance of different sectors of the economy. A report card that highlights relatively low levels of performance can be extremely instructive to policymakers and is likely to generate considerable interest.12

  • Report cards do not guarantee an informed citizenry, but they tend to enhance the quality of public debate. In short, report cards make a distinctive contribution to both politics and markets by facilitating both top-down and bottom-up accountability.13

A recent commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics has noted that report cards, compared to other formats for conveying data, highlight problem areas more clearly, impinge upon policy more directly, and establish standards against which to judge progress or regression.14

The usefulness of report cards as policy tools for state government is also reflected by their pervasiveness. Some of the most influential publications that have ranked or graded the 50 states are: Kids Count Data Book, published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation; Quality Counts, sponsored by Education Week and The Pew Charitable Trusts; The New Economy Index, by the Progressive Policy Institute; The Development Report Card for the States, by the Corporation for Enterprise Development; and Grading the States, sponsored by the Government Performance Project and Governing magazine. Like these publications, the National Center's report card will focus on comparing state performance.

Report cards that emphasize objective comparisons of performance can provide state leaders with information about performance and policies of other states, and can focus discussion on public policy options to improve performance. Like many other report cards, the National Center's report card on higher education will not advocate a single policy prescription for all states. The diversity of American colleges and universities, and the differences among states in their reliance upon public and private higher education preclude any "one size fits all" policy. But an effectively communicated report card on higher education will provide leaders in each state with performance information crucial to the creation of better higher education policy.


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