State Superintendent Heffner makes case for more demanding K-12 expectations

Ohio teachers and administrators work tirelessly to deliver an excellent education to the state’s 1.8 million students, said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Stan Heffner at the annual Ohio School Boards Association’s  conference earlier this week.  So why are fewer than one in three of Ohio’s fourth graders reading at a proficient level (according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress)? Worse, why are achievement scores unimpressive among not only the Buckeye State’s urban districts, but even among wealthier suburban districts, especially in contrast to students internationally?

Heffner argued lackluster performance in K-12 isn’t a product of laziness, ineffectiveness, or incompetence on the part of educators and leaders. Rather it results from an outdated system that “traps them in mediocrity,” and has everyone working to the lowest common denominator.  But this wasn’t just a hollow declaration, or a convenient way for Ohio’s school chief to shift blame away from demoralized educators and cast it vaguely on “the system.”

Ohio’s educational framework quite literally is the problem. Namely academic standards, expectations, accountability structures, proficiency cut-offs, and the fact that the “system” shields us from brutal realities rather than serving as a true yardstick of how our schools and children are doing. According to Heffner, student performance in Ohio is middling because academic expectations for students are set too low. Ohio’s education system focuses on getting students over a threshold of “minimum competence” instead of expecting excellence. As a result student performance (and teachers’) languishes once that bar has been cleared. (For example, once a student passes the Ohio Graduation Test in 10th or 11th grade, it’s smooth sailing from there.) Compounding this reality is the fact that our statewide accountability system lacks rigor, and masks hard-to-swallow truths from parents, taxpayers, educators, and the students themselves.

Lest this sound exaggerated or alarmist, Heffner presented staggering facts illustrating that Ohio’s expectations for (and characterization of) student performance are falling short, no matter which way you slice it:

  • Two words: grade inflation. Last year, 57 percent of Ohio’s school district earned Excellent or Excellent with Distinction (A or A+). The number of districts earning that grade has more than doubled in five years.
  • Students aren’t college-ready. Of those districts rated A or A+, 41 percent of their graduating students (attending Ohio colleges) require remediation in reading and/or math. Only 28 percent of students in the class of 2010 who took the ACT were college-ready (scoring 22 or higher) in all four content areas.
  • Proficiency on our state exams has all but lost its meaning. A sixth grader can earn proficiency on the state reading exam by answering just 35 percent of questions correctly. To be proficient in seventh-grade math, a student needs to answer just 32 percent correctly. Even among advanced proficiency (the highest of five levels) there is a staggering degree of inflation: to be advanced on the Ohio Graduation Test (OGT) a student must answer 79 percent of questions right in reading and just 77 percent in math. And the OGT really isn’t a gatekeeper for college, either; it’s based on an eighth or ninth-grade reading level and according to Heffner has not a single “algebra-two level question” on it.
  • Comparisons with other tests confirm that Ohio’s is watered down. Fordham has long argued that NCLB’s high-stakes environment has led to a dumbing down of academic standards – a race to the bottom that’s easily exposed when you compare NAEP scores to a state’s results. How else might you explain the fact that while 43 percent of Ohio’s fourth graders scored “advanced” in reading on the Ohio Achievement Assessment, but just nine percent achieved advanced on NAEP? Similar gaps persist when you compare Ohio’s achievement scores against international tests (PISA, TIMSS).

With gainful employment increasingly dependent on having post-secondary education, the old model of minimum competence won’t cut it if Ohio hopes to prepare its young people for the jobs and opportunities of the future. 

Ohio is smart to adopt the Common Core standards in English Language Arts and mathematics, and in revisiting it social studies and science standards. Those standards will be fully implemented by the 2014-15 school year, but there’s no sense in waiting until then to start raising the academic bar. Raising expectations (and increasing proficiency cut-offs some each year until 2014-15) will condition students and educators to the higher academic demands and mean higher rates of passage on state exams after the new standards go live in 2014-15. In the interim, this could mean that passage rates drop. Unsurprisingly, this conversation elicited frustration and defensiveness from some local school board members in the crowd, who feared having to admit that their Excellent with Distinction-rated schools aren’t delivering a gold-star education to students, and who theorized that it’d be difficult to meet higher demands without more state dollars.

Heffner’s only misstep during the speech was perhaps not pushing back enough on this complaint. First and foremost, Ohio’s accountability system must serve as an accurate gauge of how students, teachers, schools, and districts are performing against real world expectations. This is true even if that makes schools  look worse off in the short term. To do anything less is to mislead our educators, our communities, and our children.

Heffner deserves credit for spurring this honest conversation and he will surely need support and encouragement from the Governor’s office, state board members, lawmakers, and educators out in the field when the going gets tough. Instead of making excuses for the state’s schools – that times are tough, that federal dollars have withered, that more and more students are coming to school with painful personal and academic challenges (all of which are true but don’t pardon us from our responsibility to students)–  Heffner insists that Ohio’s educators have got to do better regardless of these difficulties and deficiencies. This starts with an honest assessment of where we’re falling short, and what we need to do to get better.

It seems ironic that while society in general is starting to realize that the over-coddling, self-esteem pushing mentality doesn’t always serve kids very well, and that qualities like grit, perseverance in the face of obstacles, and learning how to handle failure are attributes worth cultivating in young people, we’ve yet to apply to that concept to the adults that work with children every day.

Kudos to Heffner for stepping up to the plate on this, and for supporting statewide rankings for all districts and school buildings according to Performance Index score; more accurate data on teacher effectiveness that reveals great variations in quality instead of lumping all teachers together as “satisfactory” (note, Heffner acknowledges that Ohio’s value-added calculation might still need some work); and the need for higher expectations and more rigorous ways to measure how schools are delivering on those expectations. As Steve Jobs said, “Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.”Heffner has done a fine job of setting the bar for Ohio and now the state’s educators need to meet it.

Jamie Davies O'Leary
Jamie Davies O'Leary is a Senior Ohio Policy Analyst at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute