Heated debate has erupted over changes to Ohio’s new standards, assessments, and accountability policies. Most significantly, the state’s adoption of the Common Core State Standards in English language arts and mathematics has triggered efforts to roll back the new standards and the assessments associated with them. In addition to the Common Core, the state is undertaking other bold but controversial reforms, including the Third Grade Reading Guarantee—aimed at improving early literacy—and evaluations of teachers and principals that factor in student achievement.
These policy reforms reflect a shifting paradigm in K-12 education. For years, it was assumed that schools would provide an adequate education for all students. Since the early 2000s, prodded by federal law, states adopted policies whereby students have been required to meet “proficiency” benchmarks on state tests. This policy framework has moved the achievement needle forward: Disadvantaged students, for one, have demonstrated gains over the past decade on national assessments.
Yet the academic standards in Ohio and in many states across the nation remained too low, and student outcomes mediocre. The minimum expectations for what students should know and be able to do failed to match the demands of colleges and employers. As a result, Ohio and other states are raising academic expectations: “adequacy” and “proficiency” in K-12 education is passé. In its place, a new paradigm aims to ready students for college and career.
None of these big reforms—from Common Core to new assessments to clearer accountability for schools and educators—are stress-free, without complication, or uncontentious. These reforms demand more of schools and teachers; for example, under Ohio’s new learning standards, educators must have a deeper grasp of content and use richer instructional techniques. Parents will need a clearer understanding of why new learning standards are needed and how their school is progressing against them. Lawmakers will require patience and nerves of steel to hold the course.
In Poised for Progress: Analysis of Ohio’s School Report Cards 2013-14, we set aside the rancor and anxieties and take a wider-angle look at the performance of public schools and students, at the cusp of Ohio’s college-and-career-ready era. Stepping back, we observe too many students who do not meet national benchmarks for solid performance in reading and math—subjects crucial to success in college and beyond. For instance, just 39 percent of eighth-grade students reached proficiency on the reading portion of the nationally administered NAEP exams in 2013. Just 32 percent of Ohio’s graduates taking the ACT achieved a state-defined college “remediation free” score. It’s no surprise, then, that 40 percent of Ohio’s freshman who enter an in-state public college required some form of remediation in math or English.
When we examine state-assessment results from 2013-14, we discover literally thousands of students from the state’s neediest communities who struggle with basic literacy and numeracy skills. In Dayton, Fordham’s hometown, roughly half of its students fell short of Ohio’s (soft) definition of proficiency. The test results from other urban areas were just as disheartening.
Urban public schools face massive educational challenges, and only a handful of them show signs that they can lift achievement. Some of these schools operate within the traditional district system. Within the Big Eight school districts, we identify forty-eight high-quality schools, defined as those that receive solid state ratings in both performance index scores (student achievement) and value-added (student gains, measured over time). Meanwhile, many other high-quality schools are public charters: Encouragingly, we discovered thirty-three such charter schools located in the Big Eight urban areas. As you’ll see in this report, there’s a good mix of high-quality charter and district-run urban schools.
Unhappily, high-quality urban schools of any variety—district or charter—are not the norm. When we approximate the proportion of high-quality seats in Ohio’s cities (i.e., the proportion of students that attend high-quality schools), we see that only 15 percent or so of public-school seats are high-quality. In fact, the chart below shows that there is a far greater percentage of low-quality seats, either district or charter, than high-quality ones.
Chart: Percentage of high- and low-quality seats in public schools, district and charter, across the Ohio Big Eight urban areas for 2013-14
Note: The sum of high- and low-quality seats does not equal 100 percent; the medium-quality tier is not displayed.
These statistics paint an overall portrait of the public-school landscape of each urban area. It is not a pretty one—and surely unsatisfying for anyone who worries about educating disadvantaged children. In Ohio’s urban areas, it is safe to say that far more students languish in a low-quality public school than thrive in a high-quality one.
But what about charter schools? Are they contributing high-quality seats in these areas? In Cleveland and Columbus, the answer is reassuring, though not wholly satisfying: In Columbus, 32 percent of its charter students attended a high-quality school in 2013-14. In Cleveland, the figure is 28 percent. The charter-school sectors of Youngstown, Dayton, and Cincinnati offer a more-modest percentage of high-quality seats: Respectively, 22, 20, and 18 percent of their charter students attended a solid charter in those cities. Meanwhile, the charter schools in Akron, Toledo, and Canton provide few good charter-school options.
Despite the encouraging signs of growth in quality charter schools, particularly in Columbus and Cleveland, all of the Big Eight urban areas are plagued with low-quality charter schools. We approximate that Cincinnati had the highest percentage of low-quality charter-school seats (52 percent), while 34 percent of Cleveland’s charter-school seats were low-quality and Columbus stood at 23 percent.
Meantime, to those who defend the monopoly of the traditional public school district, rest assured, low-quality schools plague urban districts just as much—if not more—than these cities’ charter-school sectors. In Cleveland, 51 percent of district-school seats were low quality; and in Columbus, 33 percent. Even Cincinnati Public Schools—generally regarded as one of the healthier Big Eight districts—had 36 percent low-quality seats.
Poised for Progress shows that Ohio policymakers and educators have much hard work ahead of them. In the coming year, the Buckeye State will set a new baseline for achievement—one based on rigorous standards and assessments. There will be inevitable practical, technical, and political challenges associated with these changes. The assessments are unknown. The school-report cards remain unsettled. Proficiency rates will fall, providing a more sobering—but honest view of student achievement. Meantime, policymakers have to dramatically grow the number of high-quality seats in urban communities through whatever means possible—charter, district, or private-school choice. They also have the unpleasant task of pruning the number of seats available in low-quality schools of all types.
Ohio is poised for positive change. But many tough challenges lie ahead. It is incumbent on adults to buckle down and problem solve in the coming days. If responsible adults can do this, more Ohio students will enjoy a brighter future.