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Don’t Collapse Multiple School Performance Indicators Into a Summative Rating on State School Report Cards, Warns New Policy Brief

BOULDER, CO (June 23, 2022) – The federal Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 provided states with slightly more flexibility in the design of their school accountability systems. However, while states may take different approaches to measuring and reporting school performance, they have consistently chosen approaches of public reporting that collapse multiple school performance indicators into a summative rating.

In a new NEPC policy brief, State Accountability Rating Systems: A Review of School Report Cards as Indicators of School Quality, Gail L. Sunderman, co-founder and former director of the Maryland Equity Project at the University of Maryland, discusses the difficulties that arise when state’s school report cards use this summative-rating approach.

A core element of the Every Student Succeeds Act is the requirement that states develop statewide systems allowing for meaningful differentiation among schools. States are then required to use this information to identify schools that should be the focus of improvement efforts. Individual states decide on the type of report card, or rating system, that they will use to report this information to the public.

These report cards are intended to publicize information about how well schools and districts meet specified goals, which would ideally incentivize school improvement. However, for report card rating systems to be potentially beneficial as a school improvement policy instrument, they must provide fair and valid indicators of school performance.

The increased flexibility under ESSA means that states are following different policy paths reflecting their own interests, concerns, political perspectives, and economic conditions. Approaches that collapse multiple school performance indicators into a summative rating are concerning because there is very limited credible research on how well a single score captures the complexity of school performance or provides information on how to improve.

“Summative ratings that conflate information into a single score obscure a great deal of information about variations in school performance,” Dr. Sunderman explains. “They also do little to explain performance differences between or within schools or to help identify effective strategies to address low performance.”

Moreover, the available research evidence suggests that summative ratings fail to identify schools with high and equitable achievement, distinguishing such schools from those with high average achievement and large achievement gaps. Indeed, available research suggests that summative ratings advantage schools serving primarily higher income students while obscuring the failure of such schools to serve all children.

For policymakers designing accountability systems, Dr. Sunderman provides recommendations for resolving the significant challenges of using a single score that also reflects the complexity of teaching and learning.

Find State Accountability Rating Systems: A Review of School Report Cards as Indicators of School Quality, by Gail L. Sunderman, at:

This policy brief was made possible in part by the support of the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice (

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC), a university research center housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education, produces and disseminates high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. Visit us at: