Ohio’s state legislature fine tunes big reforms

Like many states, Ohio has lately undertaken a slew of ambitious but much-needed K–12 education reforms. In the Buckeye State, these include ratcheting up academic-content standards (e.g., Ohio’s New Learning Standards, which includes the Common Core State Standards for math and English language arts), bringing new assessments online, putting in place new accountability measures, and expanding and ensuring quality school choices for parents and students. Taken together, these changes are significantly changing the ecosystem of Ohio’s public schools.

The spring session of the Ohio General Assembly generated few significant new reforms. But lawmakers pulled off a mostly commendable nip-and-tuck job on those already adopted. They fine-tuned several big reform initiatives in ways that should help schools put them into practice. They also improved accountability for Ohio’s school-choice programs. The Mid-Biennium Review bills (House Bills 483 and 487) now await the signature of Governor Kasich. Here we discuss the most substantive policy issues (save for teacher evaluations, which are discussed in the following piece).

Pausing Accountability

The General Assembly reasserted Ohio’s commitment to the Common Core and to the PARCC assessments. But it prudently slowed things down a bit. To help schools adjust to these new and more-challenging expectations, the legislature provided a one-year “safe harbor” for districts and schools. For the 2014–15 school year, the first year that PARCC will be fully operational, the legislature exempts schools and districts from accountability sanctions such as automatic charter closure, state receivership (via the Academic Distress Commission), and becoming a voucher-designated school under the “failing schools” EdChoice program (consequence for school buildings having a low school rating for two of the past three years).

Furthermore, Ohio’s lawmakers delayed the release of overall school and district A–F letter grades (they had been scheduled for 2014–15). The state board will determine whether schools’ grades on individual components of those report cards, like the value-added and performance indices, will be reported publicly for 2014–15. All in all, lawmakers hit the “pause” button on accountability for one year—and that’s reasonable policy. But let’s be sure to limit the moratorium to one year.

Clarifying Graduation Requirements

The state ramped up the high school graduation test-passage requirements, while also creating a clearer alternative pathway to graduation for students who struggle with the test provisions. The lawmakers officially—and thankfully—waved goodbye to the eight-year old Ohio Graduation Test (for all but current high school students). Instead, the state will require high school students to pass seven end-of-course (EOC) exams, starting with students who enter ninth grade this fall. In certain subjects, AP or IB test takers will be able to use those exam results instead of the state’s EOC exams. (Nobody wants students to be over tested.)

In addition to the EOC exams, the state has created two alternative pathways to graduation. First, students can graduate by earning a remediation-free score on the ACT or SAT (the state, going forward, will now administer one of them free of charge to all eleventh graders). The score necessary to meet the remediation-free standard will be determined by the Chancellor of the Board of Regents and will represent a level of attainment signifying that a student is ready to take college-level courses.

Alternatively, lawmakers created a pathway whereby students can graduate upon the passage of a job-skills assessment and earning an industry credential. The work-ready alternative is a sensible provision that gives non-college-bound students a clear path to high school graduation. It will be critical that the work-ready alternative is implemented in a manner that it isn’t just an attendance certificate but, instead, indicates that the student is prepared for a career.

The State Board will iron out the details of what constitutes “passing” the end-of-course exams, an AP exam, and a job-skills assessment in the coming months. All told, these changes clarify how the state’s next-generation high school assessments will align to graduation requirements, while also creating reasonable alternative pathways to graduation.

Strengthening Choice Programs

Lawmakers improved the state’s school-choice accountability (both charters and vouchers) in several ways. When it came to the charter-school law, the legislature made two key changes. First, it closed a loophole in law by crafting language that will ensure that schools shuttered under the state’s automatic closure law will remain closed. (State law now explicitly prohibits a closed school from reopening when it has any of the following: (a) the same authorizer, (b) the same school leader, (c) any of the same board members, (d) half or more of the same teaching staff, (e) half or more of the same administrative staff, or (f) the same performance contract.)

Lawmakers also added teeth to the charter law to ensure that startup schools don’t flame out—and that taxpayers aren’t left footing the bill. (The new provisions require ODE to withhold payments until the school’s authorizer confirms that the school has met basic administrative and fiscal requirements.) These are needed and welcome changes, but Ohio charter law still has a long way to go to ensure quality outcomes for Ohio’s charter students.

Meanwhile, when it comes to vouchers, changes are also afoot. State law will now require the retention of voucher students (either EdChoice or Cleveland) who do not pass their third-grade reading exam. Additionally, private schools that take voucher students will be required to adopt early-grade intervention efforts, such as parental notification if they have a child who is a struggling reader. These measures previously applied only to public schools under the third-grade reading guarantee, but now they also apply to private schools that enroll pupils with the help of state vouchers.

Addressing High School Dropouts

The state, as has been well reported in the media, has a massive dropout epidemic. In Governor Kasich’s February State of the State speech, he laid bare the dropout problem and proposed initiatives to stem the crisis. The General Assembly ratified a few of the governor’s dropout-prevention proposals, including career-advising requirements and the identification of students who are at risk of dropping out.

Lawmakers, however, cannot be commended for its handling of two dropout-prevention provisions. First, the legislature struck down the governor’s proposal to provide state aid to kick-start apprenticeships arranged between businesses and career- and technical-planning districts. That’s too bad, and it seems like a lost opportunity to forge stronger public-private partnerships. Second, lawmakers added a provision that allocates up to $5 million, so that adults age 22 and older can attend a dropout-recovery charter school to try to earn a high school diploma. These schools, many of which are authorized by traditional districts, have a shaky performance record. To us, this seemed like a brazen cash grab by K–12 schools that have poorly served high school students and don’t appear particularly well equipped to educate adults. Let’s hope Governor Kasich recognizes this provision for what it is and exercises his line-item veto authority.

Looking Ahead

For now, Governor Kasich and the General Assembly have deftly avoided the political rancor that has roiled other states. Most importantly, state leadership has preserved and reasserted Ohio’s commitment to the Common Core and to the state’s new assessments. But preserving these higher standards and assessments has not come without tradeoffs, as state lawmakers have sacrificed high-stakes accountability for one year. A short-term delay in accountability sanctions is a rational course, given just how feeble Ohio’s old and outgoing standards were. These new standards (and the impending drop in standardized-test scores) are sure to shock schools and the body politic. It does no good to leave things to chance.

Beyond the Common Core, much more is still to be settled. This includes a comprehensive overhaul of the state’s anemic charter-school law that goes beyond the tinkering (albeit in the right direction) that the legislature did during this session. New alternatives for academically at-risk students need to be explored, and “work-ready” pathways need to be better defined. In many respects, the state legislature has laid out a sensible course for Ohio’s schools and students. But the state’s education reforms remain fragile, and smart, assertive leaders will be essential to strengthen these initiatives in the days to come.

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