Grading on a Curve: The Illusion of Excellence in Ohio's Schools

The number
of districts rated excellent in Ohio has risen dramatically over the past
several years, from 85 in the 2002-2003 school year to 352 in the 2010-11
school year (almost 60 percent of all districts in the state). Are students
performing at higher levels than ever before, or are there other factors
contributing to the large increase in excellent ratings? The authors of Grading on Curve: The Illusion of Excellence
in Ohio’s Schools
would argue the latter.

The report
by the Ohio Association for Gifted Children points to the complexity of Ohio’s
accountability system as well as low cut scores on Ohio’s assessment tests for
the rise in the number of excellent districts. For example, achievement
standards only require that 75 percent of students assessed at various grade
levels be proficient in order for that indicator to be met. Therefore, if 75
percent of third graders score at a proficient level in math, the district
meets the third grade indicator even though 25 percent of students are not
proficient. Districts can also get a “bump” up to excellent for making above
expected gains in value-added, thus leading to further inflation.

The report
also points to NAEP results as further evidence that Ohio’s performance
standards are too low. Forty-two percent of Ohio’s fourth graders scored at the
accelerated level in reading, compared to the NAEP results that indicate only 9
percent of students scored at the same level. Several other measures such as
Advanced Placement examinations and ACT scores are good indicators of whether a
district is performing at an excellent standard. Sixty-seven districts rated
excellent had zero students take an AP exam, while 109 districts had ACT scores
below the state average.

are often asked to waive certain funding constraints for excellent districts,
but if these districts are not truly high-performing should they be receiving
waivers and more autonomy?  The report
suggests several policy recommendations to bolster the meaning of excellence.
Among the recommendations include incorporating high-quality metrics into the
accountability system such as college remediation rates and performance on AP
exams, and a move toward nationally normed high school assessments such as the

Grading on a Curve: The Illusion of
Excellence in Ohio’s Schools

Ohio Association for Gifted Children

November 2011

Ann E. Sheldon &
Colleen D. Grady

Bianca Speranza
Bianca Speranza is a Policy & Research Associate at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute