Schools brace for lower grades on state report card

State urges perspective, aims for long-term goals

Ohio school report cards come out today with two expected takeaways — grades are expected to be lower statewide based on hard tests and higher standards, and state officials are urging educators and parents to keep the results in perspective.

“I’ve been telling people not to let the report cards define us, but rather let them inform us,” new State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria said. “We should define ourselves through a much more robust set of measures, but (the report card) still has valuable information that we should make use of.”

Several local superintendents have said their districts’ grades are lower. Shannon Cox, assistant superintendent for the Montgomery County Educational Service Center, said letter grades have dropped, “and in some cases, the drop is steep.”

“The explanation is not that our students are failing to learn,” Cox said. “What’s really happening is that schools are being judged by ‘finish lines’ that keep moving and rules that keep changing.”

State officials acknowledge that’s true to some extent, and urged people not to compare a school’s performance index from last year to this year, because different tests were used.

Students took the OAA state tests in spring 2014, the PARCC tests in spring 2015 and the AIR state tests in spring 2016. The last two were more challenging, based on Common Core state standards.

Also, the easier OGT state tests are being phased out of report card calculations.

Additionally, the test benchmarks that schools must reach increased for this report card and are scheduled to increase next year as well.

“We have raised expectations for students to reflect what is necessary for them to be ready to succeed in a competitive, global economy where employers’ expectations are higher than ever,” state school board President Tom Gunlock said.

“This year’s report cards and the grades we’re seeing reflect a system in transition to these higher expectations for student learning.”

DeMaria agreed, citing Georgetown University data clearly linking higher educational attainment with better job prospects.

The new state report card will not give schools an overall grade. Instead it will feature letter grades on six components — academic achievement, year-over-year progress, gap closing among demographic subgroups, kindergarten to third-grade reading improvement, graduation rates, and a “prepared for success” measure for those graduates.

Schools’ response

Many schools say they’re fine with standards and accountability, but have questions about the state’s measuring system. Last week, local administrators complained that tests may not be measuring the right skills and questioned how the state can reliably measure year-over-year progress when the tests change each year.

Oakwood City Schools is regularly the top-scoring district in the region, but Superintendent Kyle Ramey questioned the entire system, saying the state report cards “serve little or no purpose to improve learning.”

“Local report cards aid only to rank and sort, creating either public humiliation or an opportunity to thump one’s chest,” Ramey said. “It is a disservice to educators who are forced to invest countless hours away from the important business of learning, (on) data that result in meaningless measures.”

While Ohio Department of Education officials urge perspective on the report card, they insist it does have value. DeMaria called it “a meaningful measure of academic outcomes,” and ODE Senior Director of Accountability Chris Woolard said the report card “is an important tool to understand where your schools are strong and where they might need improvement.”

Kettering schools Superintendent Scott Inskeep sent an open letter to the community Wednesday, saying Kettering’s results are not of “the caliber and excellence that we, and our Kettering community, have come to expect.”

Inskeep said the district will take responsibility for the results and will work hard to improve, specifically by adjusting teaching strategies and investing resources to improve attendance, citing a link between poor attendance and poor test scores.

“The AIR assessments were tough,” Inskeep said. “We have to get tough, ourselves, and teach to the depth that is needed to assure student success on these tests.”

Big picture

State school board member A.J. Wagner said while schools and districts are given grades on the report card, it is the test performance of kids that is being measured, and that is influenced by things outside the schools.

“It’s measuring how well the students perform, and it can easily be interpreted to say it’s measuring poverty,” Wagner said, pointing to research linking the two. “It’s not like teachers are totally (helpless). They’re important. But in terms of overall impact, it still matters where you’re coming from.”

DeMaria pointed out that it’s normal for scores to go down when new tests are introduced.

“We’ve been through these transitions before, and we know that eventually we’ll do what we always do, which is see growth and improvement over time,” he said. “Students are capable of doing it, and our teachers and systems have what it takes to reach our goals.”

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