Educators Speak Out About Ohio’s New Report Cards

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Local educators say the state’s new and more rigorous school report cards is well-intended, but the verdict is still out on whether they think it’s a better or worse system from before.

George Wood, superintendent of Federal Hocking Local Schools, called it another “dead-end road … designed to make our schools look bad.”

The Ohio Department of Education released the new reports cards on its website on Thursday at 11 a.m. Almost immediately, the website crashed due to increased traffic. The site still wasn’t properly functioning as late as Saturday morning, which frustrated many school officials.

Starting this year, the state changed the way it evaluates and communicates the academic performance of its schools and districts. The report cards changed from a system that rated schools from “Excellent with Distinction” to “Academic Emergency” to the more familiar A-F letter grading system.

The new system is being phased in over time. Starting this year, the report card measures nine performance areas that receive letter grades. Additional performance areas will be added over the next two years.

Eventually, each performance area will be divided into one of six components — Achievement (performance on standardized tests), Progress (the amount of learning in one year, also known as value-added), Gap Closing (which measures how a school closes achievement gaps in groups based on socioeconomic, racial, ethnic or disability status), Graduation Rate (which will look at rates of graduating in four or five years), K-3 Literacy (improvements in reading for students in kindergarten through grade 3) and Prepared for Success (whether students who graduate are ready for college or career).

Eventually, each of the six components will also be given a letter grade, which will be combined to create an overall grade for the school and district. That’s not happening, though, until August 2015.

The new report cards use standards for grading that are more rigorous, according to the state Department of Education. State school officials have said to expect lower grades in the first go-round.

State education officials say the new system was developed to provide parents and community members a more comprehensive look at a school’s or district’s performance. They also say the changes better inform school districts whether they’re properly preparing students for college and career.

Wood takes issue with that.

“Unfortunately, most of the new state report card is based upon the standardized tests students take,” Wood said in a prepared statement. “These tests have never been shown to have a positive effect on students after they leave school; be it in college, the workplace, or the military. While they are one measure that helps us identify some strengths and weaknesses in our program, they should not be the sole measure of the success of our children.”

A new focus on diversity

Athens City Schools’ Superintendent Carl Martin was pleased with his district’s “A” in overall value-added and the district’s progress in third grade reading proficiency. He is concerned about the new Gap Closing measure, which looks at reading, math and graduation rates of 10 different subgroups of students.

“Gap closing is a problem throughout the state,” Martin said, “especially for diverse districts like ours.”

The subgroups include African-American students, economically disadvantaged students, students with disabilities and limited English speakers. Athens City Schools has seven out of the 10 subgroups.

“If you’re not doing well in one subgroup, that affects the overall grade,” Martin continued. “The more subgroups you have, or the more diverse the district, then the bigger challenge you have.”

For example, two of the district’s subgroups did not meet the minimum 93 percent graduation rate (they were both shy at about 92 percent). This resulted in the district receiving an “F” for that measure, called Annual Measurable Objectives.

“We should have had a better grade than F,” Martin said. “You have to dig through and keep these grades in perspective. In general, we want to know what the standards are, and we’ll keep working at improving what’s needed. I was pleased for the most part.”

Martin’s main issue, which was echoed by several school officials throughout the county, was the state’s increasing expectations of school districts.

“We need to focus on the Common Core standards, school improvement issues, the Third Grade Reading Guarantee, a new teacher evaluation system,” Martin said. “Now we have the new state report card and gap closing issues. How much time do we have for professional develop to have teachers trained in all this stuff? We need to focus on in-class teaching and having students in school everyday, ready to go and focused.”

When the data is unclear

Trimble Superintendent Kim Jones said the new system is “well-intended, with the goal to give more detailed and more transparent information.” But she added some categories may not be and so there will be an adjustment period.

That said, she is pleased the district met 16 standards, up from nine last year. Under the old system, that would have improved the district to “effective.” The district was previously rated “continuous improvement.”

Kara Raines, Alexander Local Schools’ director of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment, said she hopes the public gives the districts and the state a chance to work it out the kinks “before they judge too much.”

“There are a lot of things that we’re not sure what’s behind the data,” Raines said.

For example, while the district met 22 out of the 24 state standards (which equates to an A), the district received a B in the performance index grade. Both performance measures are based on the same data.

While she’s pleased with a B, she thought it would be higher. She said she needs to investigate whether it was a last-minute change at the state level (the state has the ability to pull certain students out of the data) or if it was a coding issue at the local level.

Remembering education is more than the data points

Raines stressed that in many cases, the difference can be found in one student. For example, if a sixth-grader is taking seventh-grade math, that student isn’t counted in the data.

“But we still do what’s best for that student,” she said. “We take every kid individually, even if it means taking a hit on the data.”