Ohio school report cards: Broken system, or easy scapegoat?

Student winners of Dayton Public Schools’ Math Olympics program were honored at a school board meeting Dec. 17, 2019. JEREMY P. KELLEY / STAFF

Overhauling the state report card for schools has become a hot topic for both Republican and Democratic Ohio lawmakers in recent weeks, with many of them calling the system broken.

But the man who built the framework for the current report card nine years ago says many of the complaints are bogus. Former state school board President Tom Gunlock said last week that the report card is fair, and adults in the education system should spend more time helping kids meet the targets and less time worrying how the report card makes them look.

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Changing the report card is not a new idea – the state school board recommended one set of report card changes more than a year ago, and a study committee required by state law published suggestions from nine education groups in December.

In the ongoing debate about private-school vouchers, Speaker of the House Larry Householder called the report card “the real culprit,” saying it unfairly labeled hundreds of Ohio schools as under-performing. A report card and testing bill is expected in the legislature in the coming months.

“The idea was, let’s tell everybody what you were good at and what you weren’t so good at. And it was never about punishing people,” Gunlock said of the report card. “It was to give us an indicator of where are we? What do we need to do to get better? … And that was it. That was the whole premise.”

Many school officials, including Dayton Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli, say they have no problem with that idea in principle, but they argue the report card’s measurements are unfair, either because they’re arbitrary or statistically questionable. Others complain that report card results correlate with student poverty year after year.

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The overall grades on the 2018-19 state report card formed a fairly clean bell curve, with 282 school districts getting C’s, followed by 169 B’s and 122 D’s, and only 31 districts receiving an overall “A” and four getting an “F.”

Ohio’s report card won special recognition for quality from the Education Commission of the States in 2014. Chris Woolard, senior executive director of accountability at the Ohio Department of Education, said the federal education department called Ohio’s report card a “best practice” last year and asked ODE to present to other states.

Woolard said one issue is that districts have different feelings about certain grades.

“What does it mean to get a “C” – that’s something that comes up a lot in an A-F system that was designed to give the public clear signals on performance,” Woolard said. “There’s different viewpoints on that – is the “C” meant to be ‘meeting expectations,’ or is the “C” meant to be average? And many people think that if you’re getting a “C” you’re failing.”

In Ohio’s private-school voucher system, as originally planned for this fall, a school could have an overall “B” or “C” on the state report card, grading above-average in student growth or test scores, and the voucher system’s rules could still deem it “under-performing” if it hit any of a handful of other report card metrics.

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“We need to get really serious about this,” Householder said recently. “We’re making ourselves look really bad. Folks who want to come into Ohio and possibly provide employment look at some of these schools’ grade cards and they think we’re all failures. And that’s just not true. We need something that’s better and more reflective.”

Some legislators have said they never expected the report card’s impact on voucher eligibility to be so large, but Rep. Kyle Koehler, R-Springfield, said on the House floor this week that anyone paying attention could see it coming.

While Koehler and Democratic Sen. Teresa Fedor both blamed a “broken” report card system, Gunlock wondered why educators and legislators who could see this coming didn’t either change approaches, or raise the issue before it became a last-second problem.

Gunlock also called for more work on new educational strategies to combat the effects of poverty and less worry about grades’ impact on school districts after they were given years of safe harbor from grade consequences.

“As a society, we have to figure out how to take that kid no matter where he came from or what the problems were, and get them to a level that they can be a functioning member of society. That’s our job as adults,” he said. “I’m tired of listening to people say, well, they came from inner city Dayton or Columbus or poor rural Ohio, and that’s the reason … we just can’t get it done. We can’t use that as an excuse because it’s unfair to the child.”

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Kettering schools Assistant Superintendent Dan Von Handorf said his district does look at all parts of the report card, “to see what we can do better.” But he echoed Lolli in concerns about pieces of the report card, including the Prepared for Success measure, where Kettering got a “D” last year.

“Prepared for Success is heavily based on ACT scores,” Von Handorf said. “At Fairmont High School, we have over 200 kids every year who are in our career tech center, they earn scholarships to Sinclair, and the ACT has no bearing on that.”

Lolli said the achievement grades on the report card can be a good indicator of whether students are mastering Ohio’s curriculum. That helps the district adjust its teaching internally. But she said they’re too often used to compare school districts that are not alike.

Woolard said stakeholders have expressed several “areas of general agreement” on changing the report card – removing the “indicators met” measurement on state tests, changing how grades are “demoted” based on certain subgroups’ performance, and finding some way to change the K-3 Literacy Improvement measure.

Woolard emphasized that Ohio switched to harder tests in recent years, and phased in some higher performance benchmarks on those tests, affecting achievement grades.

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“We’ve seen a lot of improvement the past couple years, but we’re not there yet,” Woolard said. “And so that translates into some D’s and F’s … which leads to a fair policy conversation to say, well, is that measure calibrated right?”

The Ohio Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said last week that Ohio’s grading system “doesn’t accurately reflect how well a school is educating its students” and needs to be fixed.

Gunlock said he hopes Ohio keeps the bar high in its testing and grading system, and called on ODE to use the years of performance data it has to help schools improve more.

“I guess it comes down to “what’s your goal?” Gunlock said. “My goal was that 100% of the kids met the bar, and anything less than that is a failure. Because I don’t want to leave one kid behind.”

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