Beyond Tinkering: Creating Real Opportunities for Today's Learners and for Generations of Ohioans to Come

Ohio Grantmakers Forum
January 2009

Editor's note: The Ohio-based Fordham Institute staff participated in the development of the Ohio Grantmakers Forum's (OGF) report Beyond Tinkering: Creating Real Opportunities for Today's Learners and for Generations of Ohioans to Come, which was released today. We were one group among 33 stakeholder organizations, and 43 people, involved in the months-long process to generate 11 recommendations for improving Ohio's K-12 public schools. As the introduction to the OGF report notes, "With a common commitment, this diverse group of Ohioans worked together for six months. There was give and take on many issues, but they pushed themselves to steer away from the lowest common denominators."

We signed our names to the report and endorsed it because we agreed with the goals of the report, and with the majority of the eleven recommendations. We agree fully with our OGF colleagues that Ohio needs to 1) significantly increase education attainment levels for all of its citizens, 2) align much more closely the knowledge and skills of its high school graduates with the expectations of college and the workplace, 3) close persistent achievement gaps, 4) better prepare its young people to compete internationally, and 5) make learning more relevant to young people's lives.

Where we respectfully disagree with the report relates to the recommendation that Ohio should "Reevaluate and revise its academic standards." Fordham's president Chester (Checker) E. Finn, Jr. explains why Ohio's lawmakers should march down this path with great caution, and indeed trepidation. Raising red flags about this specific recommendation is in no way meant to diminish the value of the rest of this report. In fact, it reflects the spirit of debate, dialogue, and respectful disagreement that went into the making of it in the first place. We share the critique of the perils of re-engineering standards and assessments in that spirit with our readers while also urging you to read the full OGF report for yourselves. It is available here.

The perils of re-engineering standards and assessments
Today, the Ohio Grantmakers Forum released its report Beyond Tinkering: Creating Real Opportunities for Today's Learners and for Generations of Ohioans to Come. This report offers education-reform "action recommendations" for Gov. Ted Strickland, the Ohio General Assembly, and the State Board of Education. The Ohio Grantmakers Forum struggled heroically with how to improve the Buckeye State's K-12 academic standards and the statewide testing-and-accountability system that is supposed to be aligned with those standards. That system includes the contentious Ohio Graduation Tests as well as all manner of subject-specific statewide tests that students take in the primary and middle grades-and the results of which substantially determine their schools' ratings on the state report card.

Changing any state's standards, testing, and accountability system is an enormously complex and time-consuming project. Usually, it involves multiple, massive committees and panels of teachers, subject-matter experts, innumerable education "stakeholders," and many drafts of proposals. Right now, it is also complicated by several other endeavors. In Ohio's case, Board of Regents Chancellor Eric Fingerhut has issued an ambitious strategic plan indicating that the state's public university system will rely heavily on ACT tests for purposes of placing students in college-level courses. Several other states have adopted it as their universal high-school test. This raises the obvious question of whether the ACT should become a key metric at the secondary level in Ohio, too.

But there's more. Ohio also participates in the American Diploma Project (ADP) sponsored by Achieve, a national group led by governors and CEOs, which is currently reworking its own recommended high-school exit standards for math and English. Also, the ADP-updating process includes efforts at "international benchmarking" (a nebulous concept, to be sure) and is enmeshed with a Gates-funded joint venture of Achieve, the National Governors Association, and the Council of Chief State School Officers to establish common or multi-state standards that, everyone understands, are sort of a backdoor path toward the national standards that many people think the U.S. needs.

With all of this and more underway, only the brave and optimistic would embark upon a hasty makeover of a single state's own standards. One also must be confident that the good to result from this exercise surpasses the bad that predictably accompanies any disruption of established trend lines. For example, many Ohioans take seriously the state ratings-from "excellent with distinction" to "academic emergency"-bestowed upon their schools and school systems, largely on the basis of the results of current tests. Many also have high hopes for the state's new "value-added" calculations based on those tests. Reworking the standards and tests means there will be no continuity in those rankings and ratings.

For such a makeover to be feasible, embarking upon it must focus intently on what exactly is wrong with the current standards and tests and how exactly the next round should be different. Regrettably, though the Ohio Grantmakers Forum did a nice job in other parts of Beyond Tinkering, in the standards-and-assessment sphere their product reminds me of the Hindu religion: far too many gods to worship any one with conviction. Though the short statements in the executive summary read well, as soon as you get into the detail you realize that the authors tried bravely to accommodate far too many semi-discordant voices and competing values. The five pages that start on page 18 amount to a hodgepodge of commendable hopes and incompatible objectives that provide no focused guidance for state leaders. Three examples illustrate the problems:

  • "Standards will continually be benchmarked against international standards and expectations in high-performing countries and states, and to cutting-edge, emerging knowledge." Sounds great, but read it again. Besides the challenge of knowing exactly what "emerging knowledge" has lasting value, much less "cutting-edge" significance, is the impossibility of "continual benchmarking". Standards are valuable to educators (and parents, test-builders, and policy makers) primarily insofar as they're sufficiently solid and long-lasting that it makes sense to create curricular materials, prepare teachers, and organize course sequences to attain them. If standards are continually in flux, they end up having little or no effect on what is actually taught or learned.
  • "The new assessment system must inform and improve the quality and consistency of instruction and learning....Ascertain whether students are meeting certain mileposts....Motivate students to take their education more seriously....Hold schools accountable...for ensuring that students are meeting challenging academic expectations...." Sorry, folks. If I've learned anything from four decades in this field, it's that no assessment system has ever been devised that can successfully carry those multiple burdens. Improving instructional quality, commonly known as "formative assessment," is simply not the same thing as external, results-based accountability, commonly known as "summative assessment". You can wish they were the same but they're not. 
  • "Ensure alignment of entire K-12 assessment system" while "develop(ing) end-of-course exams (grades 9-12) to replace the Ohio Graduation Tests." End-of-course exams is an idea with merit but it takes the uniformity out of the graduation testing requirement and ends up saying that a youngster must pass the end-of-course exams in whichever courses he/she takes. Which, of course, are not necessarily the same courses for everyone-despite the new "Ohio Core." If the exams (and their passing scores) differ from student to student, all one can be sure that the high-school diploma represents is passing the exams in the courses one signed up for. That's not an "aligned" system and it's not clear what that diploma means from the standpoint of colleges and employers.

Alas, there's plenty more. My point, however, isn't to beat up on the earnest, thoughtful folks who produced this mishmash (including some of my own colleagues at Fordham). It's simply to point out that, while their well-intended project demands the focus of monotheism, they, instead, erected temples to every educational deity I have ever encountered. And, Ohio policymakers should ask themselves if they want to embark, solo, on an enormously complicated, costly, and ambitious undertaking at the very point in time that the entire country may be starting to shift its approach to standards and assessments under pressure of the world economy and the need to give No Child Left Behind its own comprehensive makeover.

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