Ohio’s struggling schools way behind peers

Ohio has one of the biggest gaps in the nation between its worst-performing schools and the rest of the state’s schools, according to a report released last week by the White House.

The report, titled Giving Every Child a Fair Shot, said the gap in math proficiency between the bottom 5 percent of schools in Ohio and the rest of the state was 52 percentage points – worse than every state in the U.S. except South Dakota.

In graduation rate, Ohio’s 59-percentage-point gap was fourth-largest in the nation, behind only Florida, Minnesota and Washington. Ohio had the ninth-biggest gap in reading, making it one of only three states, along with South Dakota and Minnesota, to rank in the bottom 10 in all three categories.

Essentially this means the small cluster of schools whose students perform worst on state tests — including some local charter schools and Dayton Public Schools — are farther behind their state peers than struggling schools almost anywhere else in the nation.

And these results come after more than a decade of the federal No Child Left Behind law, which aimed to close gaps between lower- and higher-performing students.

“The question we need to answer is, are all children receiving the education they need and deserve? The honest answer is, not even close,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

The Ohio Department of Education did not respond to repeated questions about why the state’s achievement gaps are so large.

Grad rates better

The study tracked proficiency levels for both traditional public and charter schools on each state’s own end-of-year tests in 2013, before states like Ohio began using harder, Common Core-tied state exams.

Researchers identified the bottom 5 percent of elementary and middle schools in each state, based on proficiency levels in math and reading. They identified the bottom 5 percent of high schools in each state, based on graduation rate. Then they compared those schools to the other 95 percent of schools.

For example, only 26 percent of students in Ohio’s bottom schools were proficient on the state’s math test, while 78 percent of students in the remaining schools were proficient, revealing a gap of 52 percentage points.

“The achievement data in the report paints a stark picture of the vast proficiency gaps between the lowest five percent of schools and all other schools,” said Cecilia Munoz, White House director of the Domestic Policy Council. “But as challenging as this picture seems, we know that it’s possible for the most challenged schools to change course and dramatically improve student achievement.”

Some local charter schools and Dayton Public Schools have been in the bottom five percent in the state in recent years. Sheila Burton, associate superintendent for student services at DPS, said the district is trying to close achievement gaps by recruiting high-quality principals and teachers who can build a culture of high expectations.

“For instance, we have partnered with the City of Learners to offer incentives that will bring the brightest and the best to every classroom in Dayton Public Schools every year,” Burton said.

Munoz pointed out that while the No Child Behind System has flaws, the nation has made progress in those years — reaching 80 percent in overall graduation rate for the first time, and significantly reducing the black and Hispanic dropout rates.

As Congress considers changes to federal education legislation, Munoz and Duncan said it’s crucial that any new law maintains accountability systems that are equitable and continues to close achievement gaps.

Looking ahead

As state officials prepare to move Ohio to its third math/reading testing system in three years (OAA in 2014, PARCC in 2015, AIR in 2016), other changes are being made to address struggling schools, according to Aaron Churchill, Ohio research director for the Fordham Institute.

Churchill said a recently passed law gives more teeth to the “Academic Distress Commissions” that take over the state’s most struggling schools. Dayton and Trotwood schools have been warned by the state that they are on track for that intervention in three years if they do not improve.

Fordham oversees both high-scoring and low-scoring charter schools in the Dayton area (Dayton Early College Academy and Dayton Leadership Academy, respectively). Churchill said the state has implemented measures for low-achieving charters, from the automatic closure law for persistently low-scoring schools, to tougher oversight of charter sponsors.

He said the state’s increasing focus on student growth also helps balance report card measures for schools that deal with many students who start off several grade levels behind.

“I think in the past 10 years, the state has taken seriously the issues of the lowest-performing schools,” he said. “I think raising the academic standards in terms of Common Core, as well as the new science and social studies standards, raises expectations for kids who have had low expectations for years.”

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