Don’t punt overall school ratings, again

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If kicking the accountability can down the road were an Olympic sport, Ohio policymakers would win the gold medal. The latest example comes from the State Board of Education, which recently recommended that the state legislature again push back the overall A–F rating to fall 2019. The rating is slated to appear on school report cards for the first time this September and will be based on 2017–18 data. According to Patrick O’Donnell of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, legislators are mulling the Board’s proposal.

The key word in the previous paragraph is “again,” as Ohio has already delayed overall grades before. Rewind to December 2012 when the legislature passed House Bill 555 and shifted the state from its former school-report-card framework to the A–F format used today. That legislation eliminated the old overall ratings—designations such as “Effective” and “Continuous Improvement”—and called for summative A–F grades starting in 2014–15.[1] Yet as the time drew near for the release of overall grades, lawmakers backed off and delayed them until the 2015–16 school year. Then, in true Britney Spears fashion, they did it again one year later, pushing back the overall rating to its current release date of 2017–18. 

Why did legislators postpone overall grades? Citing the overhaul of the state’s academic standards and assessments, district and teachers’ union leaders urged the legislature to shield schools from consequences for poor performance, including withholding the prominent overall rating. Their argument resonated with lawmakers, and schools were given a reprieve.

But Ohio is now a half-decade into standards implementation, and this spring’s state exams are the third straight year for the assessment designed by the Ohio Department of Education and the American Institutes for Research (AIR). With the standards and assessment policy areas settled, arguments about “time to adjust” are no longer relevant. So proponents of the delay are now saying that the state’s school grading system needs work and, consequently, that the overall grade should be shelved once again.

As we’ve said about a jillion times, state lawmakers do need to retool report cards to make them less complicated and to produce fairer evaluations of high-poverty schools’ performance. To latter end, Ohio legislators should place a heavier weight on student-growth metrics so that schools enrolling primarily disadvantaged pupils aren’t blanketed with overall D’s and F’s, leaving families living in poorer communities unable to differentiate between high- and low-quality schools. By heeding our recommendations right away, state legislators would correct this problem before they issue overall grades starting this autumn.

But even if these important revisions remain undone, legislators should not withhold overall ratings yet again. Consider two reasons why.

First, an overall school rating will help Ohioans make sense of the disparate components of the report card. As anyone who has looked at the present report card knows, it contains an almost endless smorgasbord of performance metrics and letter grades. Without guidance as to which letter grades are central to understanding overall school quality, users are left to puzzle over which grades matter the most. It also leads to “cherry picking” of which grades to focus on, particularly when it comes to media coverage. On the heels of last September’s report-card release, news reports chose to emphasize different measures. In TV media, for example, Fox in Cleveland made the achievement-component grades the center of attention, NBC in Columbus focused on five out of the fourteen letter grades issued last year, and ABC in Columbus seemed to randomly pick the lowest rating on districts’ report card and didn’t even bother to disclose the graded component displayed.

Assigning overall grades will cut through the confusion of Ohio’s dozen-plus report card measures. They’ll create a common yardstick that everyone understands as a concise summary of district or school quality—just as final course grades sum up students’ performance on homework, projects, exams, and more. 

Second, punting overall ratings to 2019 will send yet another troubling message that Ohio isn’t serious about accountability for results. True, this isn’t fashionable these days—and may never be popular, especially among those working in education. It insists on consequences for woeful performance, whether they’re formal sanctions like Academic Distress Commissions, or less formal ones, such as prominent overall ratings that warn parents and communities should there be academic troubles. For schools doing well by students, the summative rating should be of little concern, and perhaps even a point of pride. But when schools demonstrate no evidence of student learning, shouldn’t parents and communities be made aware? Without a clear signal, Ohioans won’t be able to take whatever action is needed to ensure that children receive an excellent education.

The latest NAEP results for Ohio reveal that just two in five students are meeting rigorous academic benchmarks in fourth and eighth grade. College remediation data show that one in three high school graduates need to take “developmental” math or English when arriving on campus. State test results continue to expose glaring achievement gaps between disadvantaged children and their peers. And employers across the state have repeatedly raised concerns about the readiness of young people for the world of work.

Ohio policymakers need to press onward in crafting a well-functioning public school system that helps all students reach their goals and aspirations. On the accountability side, their work is far from finished. But by assigning overall grades this fall, Ohio will take an important step forward in fulfilling its obligation to hold public schools accountable for results—and ensuring that Buckeye families and communities know exactly where their schools stand.


[1] The last “descriptive” overall rating was issued in 2011–12. And per HB 555, overall ratings were not assigned in 2012–13 and 2013–14. 

 
 
Aaron Churchill
Aaron Churchill is the Ohio Research Director of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.