What’s all the grousing about an underperforming public school system in Ohio? Take a look at the latest state report cards, and the impression is that the public is needlessly critical of the quality of public education in Ohio. It appears school districts, by and large, are achieving at or near peak levels.
The preliminary report cards for the past school year were released last week by the state Department of Education. The ratings represent a composite of several measures — student scores on state standardized tests, attendance and graduation rates, a “value-added” measure of students’ progress during one year, the scores of subgroups and an overall performance index. The ratings range from the weakest performance, Academic Emergency, to the best, Excellent, and a cut above, Excellent with Distinction.
All but two of Summit County’s 17 districts were Excellent or better. As it has for several years, the Akron Public Schools remained in Continuous Improvement, a passing rate. Cuyahoga Falls slipped below Excellent in 2010-11 to Effective. Overall, 63 percent of school districts across Ohio rated Excellent or higher last year, up from 58 percent the year before. According to state data, the number of districts classified as Excellent has climbed steadily from 139 in 2006-07 to 387 this past year.
Remarkable that the majority of districts are well above average? No doubt. Believable? Hardly. Ohio’s achievement tests measure bare minimum competencies. In a presentation this spring, the state superintendent’s office made a telling comparison, showing stark differences in achievement in mathematics and reading on the Ohio tests and on the National Assessment for Educational Progress, the so-called national report card.
For instance, Ohio scores indicated 42.8 percent of its fourth-graders as advanced in reading. A mere 9 percent rated as advanced on the NAEP scores. In eighth-grade reading, 51.7 percent were advanced according to state scores. A dismal 3 percent made the cut on the NAEP assessment.
The gaps were similarly striking in math scores: 44.6 percent advanced on state tests versus 8 percent on NAEP in the fourth grade; and 33.7 percent versus 8 percent in eighth grade. The state’s own analysis indicated a very low threshold for a passing grade, requiring on average that a mere 37 percent of test items be answered correctly.
Ohio schools are scheduled in 2014-15 to launch a tougher Common Core curriculum and tests developed jointly with other states. Pending legislation, a new letter grade also would replace the current rating system. The promise is the changes will offer a more realistic assessment.
As things stand, the report cards suggest Ohio is awash in excellence. That invites skepticism. This is not to say that most districts are incapable of improving or are not striving hard for academic excellence. It is to say that if nearly two-thirds of districts are excellent or better, then in all likelihood the standards of achievement are far lower than they ought to be. If the closest thing to national assessments, the NAEP, shows huge discrepancies in achievement, then chances are the state reports are deluding the public about performance levels and students are being poorly served.