State report card needs changes, education groups say

After a year of educator complaints about Ohio’s school report card, two different organizations joined the fight this week, one group saying Ohio’s report card is unfair to high-poverty schools, and another criticizing the user-friendliness of many states’ data.

The Fordham Institute, an education policy think tank associated with Dayton’s DECA charter schools, issued a policy paper Thursday calling on Ohio to simplify and balance its school report cards.

RELATED: Leaders urge broader look at school quality

“Ohio’s present school report cards have two key problems,” wrote Fordham’s Ohio Research Director Aaron Churchill. “They have become unnecessarily complex, and the ratings themselves reflect too strongly the backgrounds of students rather than the effectiveness of their schools.”

Also this week, the national Data Quality Campaign issued a report saying most states need changes to make report cards clearer and more meaningful for non-educators. Last year, this data group pointed to Ohio as a state to watch for the value of its report card data and how clearly it was displayed. This year, Ohio was not included among its “states getting the job done.”

“States have a tough job trying to serve the needs of diverse stakeholders from school boards, community advocates, policy makers, to moms and dads,” said Paige Kowalski, executive vice president of the Data Quality Campaign. “Report cards must work for families.”

REPORT CARDS: For Dayton, Kettering, Beavercreek, Centerville

Ohio Department of Education officials did not take a strong stand on Fordham’s report, saying that they “appreciate the input.”

“As the state and our educators gather to develop Ohio’s strategic plan for education, this report adds to the ongoing discussions surrounding our school accountability system,” ODE spokeswoman Brittany Halpin said.

Monroe Superintendent Phil Cagwin said he agreed with Fordham’s complaints about what test-based report cards actually measure.

“There are so many factors that come along with every child,” Cagwin said. “To uniformly say this one score measures any particular growth leaves out those variables.”

RELATED: Dayton region has some state’s best, worst scores

That dovetailed with Springfield Superintendent Bob Hill’s argument that the report card is an unfair tool for comparison, given key differences in student populations. Hill has also pointed out that a report card based mainly on math and English tests gives no picture of a school’s music or arts program, computer science or language classes, ROTC program, or robust counseling options.

Ohio’s school report cards have changed nearly every year, whether it was a big change in 2013 from the old system of ratings like “excellent” and “effective” or smaller annual changes as new data categories have been added.

The report cards that come out each September are largely based on state exams that students take months earlier in the spring. Schools and districts will receive an overall rating next year for the first time in more than five years.

Ohio schools receive six major component grades measuring the following: overall test achievement, year-over-year test progress, kindergarten-to-third-grade literacy improvement, graduation rates, gap closing between certain demographic groups of students, and a “prepared for success” measure that tracks things like honors diplomas, college entrance test scores and industry credentials. There are also sub-grades within many components.

RELATED: Key report card terms explained

Fordham’s paper makes four recommendations:

** Turn the confusing gap-closing measure into an “equity” grade that includes student growth data. Many educators have been puzzled when high-poverty schools simultaneously receive A’s in growth but F’s in gap closing.

** Eliminate all sub-grades to streamline the report card, and eliminate the K-3 Literacy component grade because schools use varying diagnostic exams that may not be comparable.

** Weight schools’ overall rating equally between the remaining five components, with an eye toward making student growth more important.

** Echoing concerns from the Data Quality Campaign, limit the amount of supplemental data in the report card, to increase focus on the essentials.

Churchill wrote that Ohio unfairly downgrades high-poverty schools due in part to factors outside their control.

RELATED: Charters higher on tests, Dayton higher on growth

“Legislators need to enact a formula that is more evenhanded to all schools, regardless of the students they enroll, by placing greater weight on growth measures,” Fordham said in a statement.

Dayton Public Schools Associate Superintendent Shelia Burton echoed Monroe’s Cagwin on the growth issue. She said she likes the concept of using growth over achievement, especially when so many low-income students start behind, but she has concerns about how the state calculates student growth.

Acting DPS Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli said most people only pick up generalizations from the state report card, seeing an individual “A” or “F” without checking the detailed data behind it. She said it would be more valuable to have the old “item analysis” of test questions, so educators could better understand the specific skills and concepts that students are failing to grasp.

Report cards’ frequent changes can lead to confusion. Many schools saw their test proficiency levels rise last year, but simultaneously saw their “indicators met” score drop, because the state moved the goalposts.

RELATED: Ohio graduation rules could change again

And it was only three years ago that the Education Commission of the States highly praised Ohio’s new A-F report card, saying both parent reviewers and researchers singled it out for quality.

“While well-intentioned, Ohio’s phase-in of new performance measures in recent years has made report cards increasingly unwieldy and harder to comprehend,” Fordham wrote.

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