National experts agree that Ohio’s school accountability system is too complicated

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Last week, Bellwether Education Partners (in partnership with the Collaborative for Student Success) released its review of Ohio’s plan to comply with the federal law known as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). This was part of a larger project gauging the strengths and weaknesses of each state’s ESSA plan. Ohio policymakers should give careful thought to their feedback; but what should they take away from this evaluation? Let me offer three points of strong agreement with their Ohio review—and one different viewpoint. Note: I participated in this project as a peer reviewer but did not evaluate Ohio’s plan.

The areas in which the reviewers’ opinions were spot-on are as follows.

  • Ohio’s accountability system is too complex. Under its summary of weaknesses, Bellwether writes: “The sheer number of measures included creates a complicated system and tends to dilute the value of many individual measures as a result.” Amen. Ohio now includes up to fifteen district or school ratings, including an overall rating, six component ratings, and eight subcomponent ratings (i.e., ratings within a larger component). This creates a noisy, cluttered report card that can lead to confusion rather than clarity on school and student performance. State legislators should heed these concerns and trim the number of ratings Ohio assigns; in a recent Fordham report, we recommend an accountability system with just six letter grades.
  • Ohio’s focus on high-achieving students is laudable. Bellwether’s review notes as a strength the “multiple incentives across its system … for schools to focus on supporting students to reach advanced levels.” As evidence, the review cites Ohio’s use of a performance index—a weighted measure of proficiency that awards extra credit when students reach higher levels—and the incorporation of gifted students into the accountability system. They also mention the “innovative” Prepared for Success component that provides bonuses when students earn passing scores on AP or IB exams, or earn dual enrollment credits. Ohio’s attention to high-achievers is indeed commendable, and it’s fantastic to see this review recognizing the state’s success.
  • So is Ohio’s decision to lower the n-size for subgroup accountability. It may sound wonky, but Ohio’s ESSA plan proposes an important shift in “n-size” policy—a change that reviewers cite as a strength. N-size refers to the minimum number of students who must be in a subgroup in order for their school to be held accountable for their performance, as an individual subgroup. Subgroups refer to various grouping of pupils based on similar characteristics (e.g., race/ethnicity or students with disabilities). ESSA requires reporting of subgroup data following previous federal law.

The policy question turns on exactly how many students must be in a subgroup before a school is held accountable. Under its plan, Ohio would reduce this minimum n-size from a current policy of thirty to fifteen students. Naturally, this would also increase the number of schools held accountable for subgroup performance. For instance, Bellwether’s review notes that the percentage of Ohio schools accountable for students with disabilities rises from 58 currently to 86 percent under this change. Moreover, an n-size of fifteen should maintain privacy protections for individual students, a key concern when reporting data among smaller numbers of pupils.

On the balance, this review offers solid, reasoned opinions on Ohio’s accountability policies under ESSA.

Yet in my opinion, one of its conclusions was off the mark. Namely, it found Ohio’s K-3 Literacy component to be a strength. The reviewers write, “This is a novel approach other states could consider emulating.”

Although well-intentioned, the problems with the K-3 Literacy measure are significant. Most notably, this measure relies on data taken from a wide array of diagnostic exams from which schools may choose; this limits the comparability of the data (and ratings) across schools. Also troubling is the large number of schools and districts that are simply excluded, including 25 percent of low-poverty schools and 10 percent of districts. Lastly, the measure itself does not gauge the year-to-year growth of all students, including high-achievers; it simply looks at whether children move from “off track” to “on track” status from one autumn to the next.

The early elementary grades are as important as any for students’ academic growth, and policymakers could aim to ensure solid progress through the accountability system. Research also indicates that when states exclude early elementary grades, schools might respond by reassigning high-performing teachers into the tested grade levels. Creating a counterincentive would make sense (though the Third Grade Reading Guarantee accomplishes some of this). Yet any measure for early elementary grades should also be well-designed and yield meaningful results. Regrettably, K-3 Literacy doesn’t quite meet those conditions. Considering the tradeoffs, Ohio’s K-3 Literacy rating should be seen more as a liability than an asset.


The biggest takeaway from Bellwether’s ESSA review is this: Even smart, experienced people in education say our school rating system has become too complicated. If they’re having trouble distinguishing heads from tails, chances are that Ohio moms and dads also have difficulties. Efforts to strengthen our accountability policies didn’t end when ODE submitted its ESSA plan. In the coming year, here’s hoping that state legislators make the right moves to improve school accountability in the Buckeye State.

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