Besides firsthand knowledge, the reasonable avenue for Ohio residents to compare their public schools and make judgments about the quality of education in their local districts is through the annual state school report cards. It is little surprise then that interest is high this year in the report card, following a much-heralded overhaul of the rating system.
The report cards for districts and schools were released on Thursday, and as state officials have signaled for months, no district scored all As or all Fs. If there is a general observation that sums up the report, it is that there are measurable strengths and weaknesses in all districts. All the same, it is disconcerting when a school system such as the Akron Public Schools, which has been showing slow but incremental progress, ends up with three Fs, three Ds and three Cs.
One valid complaint about the previous system of rating districts and schools on a scale from Excellent with Distinction down to Academic Emergency was that it was vague and has led over time to most districts being rated as excellent or better, often hiding weaknesses even in high-achieving districts. For instance, while much attention has focused, rightly, on underperforming students, critics point to a benign neglect of gifted students.
In that regard, the new system is expected to yield a more precise report, with nine measures this year and several more to come over the next three years. The report will feature a district letter grade in 2015 that will be a composite reflecting performance on several component categories, including achievement levels, graduation rates and annual progress (value added) by different student groups, gifted students and the bottom 20 percent among them.
The new grading system is intended to expose both strengths and weaknesses in school systems. And it does so by expanding the components for assessing performance. Yet the new system presents its own weaknesses. For example, the indicators of achievement and progress are based, as in the previous system, largely on scores on standardized tests, which research shows correlate closely with income.
An analysis of the new district reports cards by the Ohio Association of School Boards reveals that 91 percent of the 135 districts with incomes higher than the state average made an A grade on the number of standards met. Roughly three-quarters of districts with lower poverty levels than the state average earned As compared to 20 percent of districts with higher poverty levels. In this regard, the new reporting system does not offer much of an improvement on the past.