Deeper learning and more difficult tests — no longer taken by filling in bubbles with No. 2 pencils — have led to a wholesale resorting of academic performance among Ohio’s 608 school districts.

Though experienced everywhere, the dramatic dip in test scores hit some school districts harder than others. Meanwhile, the state has rolled out new accountability to paint local school systems with a single and consequential letter grade on report cards.

In a first-ever multi-year analysis, the Beacon Journal ranked every Ohio school district based on how students scored on state tests, assigning from highest to lowest a rank of 1 to 608. The analysis covers the past 14 years to look beyond the report cards’ snapshot performance of school districts. Instead, the goal is to uncover models of success and signs of failure as school districts climb or fall multiple rungs on Ohio’s newly built ladder of academic success.

For many, the shift in rank has been the statistical equivalent of taking an elevator up a couple floors, or jumping out a mid-floor window and landing on the porch roof.

Overall, 51 school districts climbed 100 or more positions while 54 fell just as far. Only six school districts, among the wealthiest with little room for improvement on state tests, ended with the same rank they had five years ago. Everyone else went up or down.

The multi-year ranking puts a statewide spin on how local school districts have fared. Putting the focus on Summit County, between 130 and 157 Ohio school districts jumped ahead of Stow-Munroe Falls, Tallmadge and Woodridge. Part of a statewide pack of suburban schools with relatively low poverty rates, according to how the state classifies them, the three local school districts are in a category of communities that posted the largest average decline in performance, according to the paper’s analysis.

Locally, Coventry stuck out like a sore thumb: 205 of Ohio’s 608 school districts climbed (in ranking) over this small town school district in southern Summit County. Only seven school districts statewide fell further than Coventry.

Woodridge Superintendent Walter Davis was surprised to see his district’s ranking drop so far. In 2004 — the first year data are readily reported by the Ohio Department of Education — Woodridge ranked 297th in the state. By 2014, the district climbed 168 spots to No. 197. Since then, though, the district has taken a 130-position nosedive.

“I’m kind of appalled at the chart,” Davis said when shown the Beacon Journal analysis. “I never saw our performance in the context of other districts.” Woodridge was the only school district in Summit County to slip 100 spots or more and return a phone call from the Beacon Journal to talk about it.

Everybody hurts

Test scores statewide plummeted in the 2014-15 school year with the state’s new accountability system and the first year of implementing more rigorous Common Core learning standards. Scores fell again the following year after a shift from pencil-and-paper testing to computer-based exams.

Davis had little explanation for why Woodridge’s rank plummeted while others fared better. But he, along with many other districts, contend tests don’t paint the whole picture.

“I’m not panicked because state tests suggest we do poor in a certain area. I don’t necessarily think state tests are valid and reliable. How can they be when you’re constantly changing the game?” Davis said. “I am much happier when our progress measures are soaring. It implies students are growing over time. That, to me, is the definition of learning.”

Dramatic shifts like the one Woodridge experienced can be partly attributed to clustering. The bulk of the districts, when their scores are plotted, are packed tightly in the middle. With little room between them, a slight change in performance translates to a greater shift in ranks. At the edges, the highest and lowest performers must make larger gains to inch ahead.

School superintendents, curriculum specialists and academic researchers will attest that student performance on exams is but one way of measuring the effectiveness of a school system. And arguably more so than any other measure, test scores are tightly tied to the socioeconomic status of the surrounding communities that raises the children and, due to Ohio’s unconstitutional reliance on property taxes, supports local public schools.

In a separate analysis, the Beacon Journal combined the most recent figures on child poverty with state test scores. The exercise, which produced what researchers would call a very strong correlation, reaffirmed a longstanding trend: poor students struggle on tests.

Searching for success

The Beacon Journal’s analysis finds success in a variety of places, even districts lambasted by the state’s A-F report cards.

In order of most improved, Barberton, Springfield, Revere, Copley-Fairlawn and Akron — five Summit County school districts not often lumped together on report card day — all climbed between 5 and 21 positions.

That’s not to say that Barberton is now on par with the likes of Revere. To keep performance in perspective, consider that Barberton climbed 21 positions, from No. 557 in the 2013-14 school year to 536 this past school year. With less room to grow and fewer districts to overtake, Revere still found a way to climb 17 positions, squeezing into the upper echelon of performance from 38th to 21st statewide, even overtaking Hudson, which slipped in the past five years from 14th highest in the state to 28th last year.

What’s worth noting, though, is that the performance gap between the slipping Coventry and the improving Barberton is now half what it was five years ago.

Shelly Habegger, the director of curriculum in Barberton, credited her district’s success with a focus on state and local performance data. Habegger said the district takes both points seriously and adjusts its curriculum accordingly. Significant gains in high school American government and fifth-grade science have helped push the district’s overall performance up in the past two years.

“The report card is a chance for us to reflect. We take the snapshot of time to identify where we need to have our intensive supports. It drives conversations around district leadership, and it’s transparent reporting for student performance,” Habegger said. “We’re being more consistent and more purposeful in the activities and assessments we have students take.”

In Akron, assistant superintendent Ellen McWilliams-Woods attributes a modest five-position rise in the rankings to work with the University of Pittsburgh on adopting Common Core in the classroom nearly four years before the state required it.

“We’ve been able to adapt more quickly than other districts that were in our cluster range of performance index scores,” McWilliams-Woods said. “I think that’s why we’ve been able to close those gaps more quickly.”

Theresa Cottom-Bennett can be reached at 330-996-3216 or tcottom@thebeaconjournal.com. Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com.