Leaving Ohio's children behind

When it comes to student success, Ohio is kidding itself. Our state's precipitously low academic expectations leave students ill-prepared to compete in the global economy. This is the disturbing conclusion of several major, in-depth assessments of our students' academic performance.

Consider recently released data for Ohio on the Nation's Report Card (2007) that reports the scores for the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)-often considered the "gold standard" for what students should know and be able to do in each grade level. There are striking differences between the levels of proficiency on Ohio's annual assessment and the NAEP. In fourth-grade reading, for example, 80 percent of students passed Ohio's Achievement Test but a meager 36 percent passed the national assessment. The findings were similar in fourth-grade math where 76 percent of students passed the Ohio test and only 46 percent passed the national assessment. While we may be performing relatively well on state accountability measures, we are failing to prepare students to meet national standards.

Also, consider recent findings from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute's The Proficiency Illusion report released today that ranked the "proficiency cut scores" in 26 states-including the Buckeye State-in reading and math to determine how difficult it is to pass Ohio tests in comparison to other states. (A "proficiency cut score" is the minimum score a student must achieve in order to be considered proficient.) This report found that the difficulty of Ohio's proficiency cut scores in reading and math are generally below the median compared to the 25 other states in the study. In eighth-grade reading, Ohio ranked 21st among the 26 states analyzed and in math we ranked 19th-with one being highest and 26 lowest. Simply put, we aren't setting the bar for our children at what can reasonably be termed proficient. We are aiming for mediocrity instead of excellence.

Up until now, Ohioans believed that their young people's academic performance was on an upward trajectory. They believed more children were making proficiency each year and they felt proficiency meant something. Unfortunately, it seems that trust may have been misplaced.

And it seems that there has been some finagling with the "cut scores" to determine who passes tests. Under intense political pressure from school districts and others, the Ohio Department of Education has reduced cut scores-particularly in mathematics-when too many students performed poorly. When in doubt, the bar has been lowered.

At the heart of the No Child Left Behind act (NCLB) is the call for all American school children to become "proficient" in reading and mathematics by 2014. Yet NCLB allows each state to craft its own definition of proficiency and to craft the tests that will measure it. And make no mistake, states are feeling serious pressure to meet this goal.

As a result, states-and Ohio is among them-have begun a "race to the middle" by setting low cut scores on less rigorous tests to bulk up the number of students deemed proficient. Thus, schools and school districts escape the embarrassment and sanctions associated with failing to get all children proficient by the federal deadline.

So, what can be done to ensure that Ohio's children are prepared to compete with their peers in California, Connecticut, Canada, and China when applying for colleges and jobs? It's time for a serious discussion about national standards and a national achievement test that ensures that all states are held accountable to the same standards. And that these standards mean something. Local control of schools is a long-cherished American tradition. On this issue, it no longer serves the best interests of the nation's school children, although this is a tough political sell and it will take years to gain traction.

Ohioans, however, can control the expectations we set for students in our state and we ought to seriously consider increasing the rigor required to be considered proficient. Rethinking our cut scores and current assessments and better aligning them with national expectations is a must, even if it means not meeting the expectations of NCLB. At least we will be honest with ourselves and our students about how well they actually are prepared to take on the real world.

See also:

The Proficiency Illusionauthored by the Northwest Evaluation Association and commissioned by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, released October 4, 2007.

"Mind the measure: different yardsticks yield confusing picture of educational progress" from the Columbus Dispatch on Monday, October 1, 2007.

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