Colorful and packed with a cornucopia of data and letter grades spread across numerous educational categories, the Ohio Department of Education's state report cards provide no shortage of district information.

But how data are calculated and translated has turned the annual report card into a lightning rod of criticism from teachers, parents and education officials who question whether the information is understandable or fair, or if it provides an accurate measure of a district's academic performance.

"Ohio's school-report-card letter grades have become increasingly questionable, inconsistent, difficult to understand, frustrating for educators and confusing for parents," state Rep. Mike Duffey (R-Worthington) wrote in a memo Jan. 8 to his Ohio House of Representatives colleagues.

>> Local educators weigh in <<

Duffey said he plans to introduce a bill soon that would revamp the report card, including the elimination of all letter grades.

Meanwhile, the State Board of Education is planning its own review of report cards given to schools and districts each year, responding to widespread criticism that they don't accurately reflect student performance.

"We want to take a deep dive into the report card. There have been so many issues of concern of (whether it is) truly an effective tool not only to districts but to parents," said board President Tess Elshoff.

She pledged to come up with a plan for reviewing report cards after the 19-member board Jan. 9 rejected a proposal by board member Lisa Woods of Medina to create two committees of lawmakers, teachers, students and others to look into performance measures and recommend changes.

Woods said many educators and parents have no confidence in report cards.

"We have to take a look at this report card ... and really look at its value and if we are spending the right amount of time, resources, money on something that ... does not put the student in the middle of the conversation," Woods said. "What is the purpose and what is the outcome?"

At the local level, several superintendents said they supported re-evaluating the report cards.

Potential changes

Despite the outcry, the state's hands are tied to a large degree. Federal law requires states to issue report cards documenting schools' academic performance and progress, rankings and other measures. State-mandated indicators, including third-grade literacy, and the way some measures are calculated could be altered; most changes would require legislative approval.

Instead of letter grades based on whether certain benchmarks are met, Duffey is proposing to replace them with what he calls straightforward reporting of test scores, rankings and other data.

He also wants to develop new, "simpler" calculations for various measurements, including the value-added component, which measures if a student is getting a full year's worth of education.

"Very few administrators can even explain to a parent how this letter grade is even remotely calculated," Duffey said. "Based on my analysis of the current value-added component, it is possible for a district to positively grow students and still score poorly."

Duffey also would add information to the report card that provides details on classes offered by the district, including Advanced Placement courses, sports and fine arts, plus information on how a student is likely to perform based on the student's subgroup.

Districts have expressed widespread criticism of the report cards, asking for more clear and concise feedback on academic performance, said Jennifer Hogue, director of legislative services for the Ohio School Boards Association.

"We're hearing from a lot of our districts that it's not a fair representation of the work going on," Hogue said, noting she hears most often about the K-3 literacy measure.

Despite its name, K-3 literacy determines progress of students on reading-improvement plans, not how many students actually meet the third-grade reading standard.

The complexity and volume involved in the report card, Hogue said, makes it difficult for district officials to explain to parents how grades were calculated.

She said the value-added measure, for example, "is a very complicated mathematical equation."

In December, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education-policy group and charter-school sponsor, issued a report that argues the report card has become "increasingly unwieldy and harder to comprehend."

Fordham proposed three main changes that would:

• Reduce the 15 letter grades to six.

• Overhaul the "gap-closing" component that measures performance of subgroups, such as ethnic groups or students with disabilities. Calling it unnecessarily complex with counterintuitive results, Fordham said the measure needs clarity.

• Change how the overall school rating grade is calculated by placing greater weight on growth measures.

"By focusing so heavily on achievement measures, Ohio's rating system unfairly labels high-poverty schools that are making big impacts on student growth as failures," said Aaron Churchill, Fordham's Ohio research director.