The release this week of the state school report cards for 2011-12 concludes an experiment in Ohio’s search for an accurate way to convey how well its public schools perform their mission. After this year, the state report card will feature letter grades A through F to indicate academic progress, basing the grades on a broader set of measures, a “dashboard” to better capture what schools are expected to accomplish.
In 1998, the state launched the current system of annual rating as a means to hold districts and their schools accountable and also “as a way to educate the community.” The designations Academic Emergency, Academic Watch, Continuous Improvement, Effective and Excellent were intended to reflect the level of performance in individual schools and in the district as a whole. The idea, in part, was that the report cards would spur taxpayers to compare where their own schools fall in the rating scheme in relation to neighboring and similar districts.
There is no question that over the years, the academic profiles presented by the report cards have put pressure on school administrators to improve on such elements as test scores, attendance and graduation rates. Voters have been as likely to cite the ratings as reason to reject a levy request as administrators have been to point to an improved rating as a reason for support.
Still, for a system that was supposed to be a simple, clear and accurate presentation of how schools are performing, the current rating system has been a source of much confusion. Frequent legislative changes made it a challenge to track progress over time. Opaque rules and formulas, the Adequate Yearly Progress, for example, led to some incomprehensible differences in ratings. More recently, the increase in the number of districts attaining Excellent ratings has given rise to concern about a “Lake Wobegon effect,” an overly optimistic assessment in which few districts are below excellent. More disturbing still are the recent findings by the state auditor that some districts have manipulated enrollment, temporarily “scrubbing” out weak students with the possible intent to improve test scores and ratings.
Schools face a two-year transition to the lettergrade system during the same period as Ohio introduces a Common Core curriculum with more rigorous content and assessment standards. Fully implemented, the new report card is expected to provide easy-to-understand composite grades as well as separate grades on how schools are performing across six categories. If anything has been learned from the current system, it is that to be an effective tool to improve performance, a grading system needs to be at once simple and complex enough to capture every nuance of progress.