Blog: The Educated Reporter

U.S. Department of Education Gets Top Marks For Clarity

While the federal government has a reputation for gobbledygook when it comes to communicating information, the U.S. Department of Education won top honors for its clear explanation of how students are performing on the National Assessment of Education Progress.

This week, the Center for Plain Language awarded its ClearMark Grand Prize to the National Center for Education Statistics for its online research tools for the NAEP, also known as “the Nation’s Report Card.” NCES beat out entries from both the public and private sector.

“For more than 40 years, NCES has done outstanding work to inform us all in clear, unambiguous language about the successes or shortcomings of the many education programs serving America’s students,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, in a written response to my request for comment on the award. “This is no easy task or trivial contribution – our children’s education is at stake and NCES evaluates an incredible volume of reports, data sets, and research materials. I congratulate and thank them for a job well done.”

The entries were judged by an international panel of experts, following a “strict set of criteria,” according to the Center for Plain Language, a nonprofit organization that advocates for government and business documents to be “clear and understandable.”

The NCES online tools are designed for a wide audience – including educators, students, parents, the media, researchers and the general public. Users can view and compare results at the national and state level, view sample questions, and find out what knowledge a student has to demonstrate in order to be identified as “proficient.” As a result, NCES “makes it easy to understand complex educational statistics that point to the future of American education,” said Annetta Cheek, chairperson of the Center for Plain Language’s board of directors.

It’s worth noting that the Education Department hasn’t always fared well for the clarity of its writing. In 2010, the Center for Plain Language zinged a publication explaining federal student loan regulations, describing it as a “labyrinth of negatives and exceptions.”

Without question, many documents related to the complex business of education are plagued by a plethora of jargon, acronyms and edu-speak, making comprehension daunting for even seasoned educators in the trenches. When statistics are added to the mix, it only becomes more difficult to forge a clear path, said Jack Buckley, the commissioner of NCES.

As the news of the award for clear writing spread through NCES, staff members “were thrilled for once that we weren’t being told we wrote something incomprehensible,” Buckley said.

John Easton, director of the Institute of Education Sciences (which includes NCES) “has made plain language in our reporting a priority,” Buckley said. “It’s not always an easy thing to do when you are producing a technically complex document, but we try. We’re happy to find out that in this instance we’ve done that quite well.”

The Center for Plain Language’s  annual competition also includes “WonderMark” awards for documents that “make us shakes our heads and say `we wonder what they were thinking.’” This year’s recipients include Michigan’s White Lake Township school district, for its speed limit sign listing a half-dozen different periods when drivers were not to exceed 25 miles per hour. The slow-zone times included 6:49-7:15 a.m., 8:37 to 9:07 a.m. and 3:04 to 3:34 p.m.

As the center noted on its Web site announcing the awards, “If you want to make your school zone safe, it’s probably best not to create a sign that takes longer to read then safely driving past it.”


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