About a third of the area's 62 school districts received a higher grade this year on the state's report card than they did last year.
And more than half of the area districts either made adequate yearly progress (AYP) — the federal math and reading goals — after missing it last year or maintained a positive AYP status.
Most of the improvements resulted from two new state measures tracking students' progress.
These measurements, called ''value added'' and ''growth model,'' are designed to give districts credit for progress that teachers have made with students who start far behind and make significant gains, but still fall short on proficiency tests.
Plain Schools in Stark County showed the biggest jump, rising from continuous improvement (a C grade) to ''excellent.'' Louisville, in Stark County, and Manchester went from ''effective'' to the highest rating. James A. Garfield in Garrettsville in Portage County and Springfield improved from ''effective'' to ''excellent'' thanks to the value-added measure.
But most of the districts getting a higher overall grade this year were rated ''excellent'' last year, the equivalent of an A grade. (View the state report card here.)
They would have been rated ''excellent'' again this year, but with the value-added component included, they received a new designation called ''excellent with distinction.''
Under that measure, if students show more than expected growth from one year to the next for two straight years, a district can bump its designation up a level.
This required the state to create a new top designation — an A+. Next year will be the first when districts will be penalized — getting bumped down in their overall ratings — for falling below the expected growth.
Across Ohio, 45 percent of districts achieved above the expected growth in the new value-added measure, while 23 percent met the expected growth and the other 32 percent fell below the expected growth, according to the Ohio Department of Education.
During a conference call with reporters Monday, State School Superintendent Susan Tave Zelman noted that — for the third straight year — no districts fell into the lowest ranking of academic emergency. Also, she said 74 districts met the new ''excellent with distinction'' rating.
Twenty-eight of the Akron- Canton area's 62 districts achieved a separate, federal goal called adequate yearly progress, or AYP, this year after missing it on last year's report cards.
All but five of those 28 districts did so because the state applied a new measure called a ''growth model'' to their test results.
The ''growth model'' counts students as proficient who aren't proficient now in reading and math, but are projected to reach proficiency within two years.
Missing AYP on state-mandated reading or math tests brings increasing penalties to a district or school building, ranging from requirements to offer tutoring to the loss of some federal funding.
Nine suburban districts met AYP last year, but would have missed it this year if not for the growth model. Three districts met AYP last year, but failed to make it on this year's cards and three districts maintained their positive status without needing the growth model.
Across the state, 294 districts and 980 schools met AYP because of the growth model.
In the Akron-Canton area, Tallmadge was one of a dozen districts that moved from A to A+, which was welcome news with a levy looming on the Nov. 4 ballot.
''I certainly want the public to know that the hard work we've done is paying off and hopefully will continue to pay off,'' school board president Thom Craig said.
Akron saw gains in individual buildings and among student groups that met AYP this year with the help of the growth model, but its overall grade is still ''continuous improvement'' and it did not make AYP.
None of the state's eight big city districts made AYP this year.
But AYP was more difficult to reach through test scores alone this year because the federal government raised the bar on the percentage of students scoring ''proficient'' or higher in math and reading.
Bar is raised
Under the No Child Left Behind law, the bar is raised every three years, aiming at 100 percent proficiency by 2014.
So a greater percentage of children taking the federally mandated math and reading tests last school year (the basis of the newly released report cards) had to score proficient or better for the district to meet AYP.
Assistant Akron Superintendent Ellen McWilliams said urban districts know the three-year cycle all too well.
McWilliams said it's common for districts to have a drop in test scores the first year the bar is raised. They tend to rebound the second year and make gains the third year, but then the cycle repeats when the bar raises again.
Manchester missed AYP last year, but the growth model helped it clear that hurdle this year in addition to receiving the top overall rating.
Manchester Superintendent Sam Reynolds credited the students, staff and supportive community for the improvements, but noted that test scores alone do not reflect the district's strengths.
''We're very happy with the results. What better way to begin the school year,'' Reynolds said. ''But learning for children is broader than these tests.''
John Higgins can be reached at 330-996-3792 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Beacon Journal staff writers Stephanie Warsmith and David Knox contributed to this article.