Ohio’s high-flying public schools, in reading

In Ohio, like many states across the nation, reading achievement has largely stalled. The state’s reading scores on the domestic NAEP assessments haven’t moved over the past decade: In fourth-grade reading, the state’s average score was 222 in 2003 and 224 in 2013. The story is the same for eighth grade. Meanwhile, on state assessments, reading proficiency rates have improved noticeably in fourth grade (from 77 percent in 2006 to 88 percent in 2013), but fifth- and sixth-grade reading proficiency rates haven’t budged. In fifth grade, for instance, statewide reading proficiency was 75 percent in 2006 and 74 percent in 2013.

Test data suggest that strong and concerted efforts must be made to stem the tide of mediocre reading achievement. The Third Grade Reading Guarantee is one policy initiative aimed at improving early literacy. And in 2010, the state board adopted new English language arts (ELA) standards—part of the Common Core—in order to increase the rigor of what students are expected to know and be able to do when it comes to reading, writing, and grammar.

State leaders have created a policy framework—Third Grade Reading for foundational early-literacy skills and long-term growth under the Common Core—to improve ELA across Ohio. And now, for many Ohio schools, it’s implementation time. This made me wonder: Which schools are already making the biggest impact on their students’ reading achievement? Have any schools consistently helped their students make large gains on state assessments? Of course, past success is no guarantee that (a) such schools will sustain their success or (b) their success will necessarily translate to other schools. Yet identifying schools that appear to have significantly boosted reading achievement is a reasonable place to start.

Before digging into the data, a short detour: it is essential to understand the dual nature of reading if test scores are to improve. Children must first learn to “decode,” to turn printed letters into sounds and words. But in order to be able to understand what they read, a school’s curriculum must be “intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades,” as the Common Core describes. The decoding piece is obvious, and the knowledge and comprehension piece is the patient work of years of schooling. It’s essential for educators to get these two dimensions of reading right and to avoid the overreliance on test prep, which can create the comforting illusion of progress but damage kids’ ability to read with true understanding over the long haul. 

I look for schools that were ranked in the top 10 percent on the state’s value-added measure for reading in each of the past four years. Value added is an estimate of a school’s impact on achievement, as measured by the state assessment. The measure uses statistical methods to control for nonschool factors, so attempting to isolate the contribution of the school itself on achievement.

That said, value added in reading can be tricky, as eminent literacy scholar E. D. Hirsch has argued, especially at a teacher level and for just a single year. That is why the analysis that follows includes school-level data. Seemingly, a school’s value add would capture not only the effect of ELA-specific instruction but also the effect of social studies, science, and geography on reading gains. I also include schools that appear to have made a big difference on achievement for consecutive years—a fairly high bar that seems less prone to capturing year-to-year fluctuations in gains.

The table below displays eighteen schools that were ranked in the top 10 percent of schools statewide in reading value added in each of the past four years.[1] It’s worth noting that only one school, Columbus Preparatory Academy, was ranked in the top 10 percent for each of the past five years. Top honors go to this Franklin County charter school.[2]

Three additional things stand out:

  1. Two high-poverty urban schools in Cleveland made the list—Clark School, a K–8 district school, and Hope Academy Chapelside charter school (now named the Green Inspiration Academy). Schools that serve disadvantaged youngsters can and do make a large impact on reading achievement.
  2. Kettering City School District, outside of Dayton, appears to have a high-impact ELA approach. Two of its schools, Kettering Middle and Van Buren Middle, were ranked in the top 10 percent in all four years. It might be worth discovering what is cooking in Kettering’s classrooms.
  3. Finally, just one very high-income suburban school—as defined by ODE’s district typology—made the list: Harmon Middle School in Aurora (suburban Cleveland). Reading ability in affluent schools is often a reflection of the knowledge- and language-rich households in which children grow up. As such, it is quite plausible that wealthy suburban schools could have a harder time demonstrating rapid growth when their students start from a high base. But an alternative hypothesis is that many high-income schools could be doing more to improve the reading skills and abilities of their students. It’s probably a mixture of both explanations. (I’d suggest from my own experience in middle and high school at a relatively wealthy suburban school that the reading, writing, and grammar instruction could have been better.) In the end, I would argue that even while Ohio’s most advantaged suburban schools tend to enroll many students from high-resource families, they can still strive to be the best in the state.

We can’t be absolutely sure that the schools listed here possess the key to reading, writing, and grammar instruction. But these schools have been consistent high flyers along one of Ohio’s key dimensions of performance. As such, they might be worth peering into at least and perhaps learning from.

Moreover, a comprehensive look at Ohio’s school environment would also include private schools, too. Voucher students’ reading scores provide some suggestive (though by no means conclusive) evidence that private schools do good work teaching literacy. Their reading proficiency scores tend to be somewhat higher than those of comparable students in the public schools. As Ohio moves ahead with ambitious literacy initiatives, it’ll be helpful for schools, across “sector” lines, to learn from the best. Looking at some data points provides a starting point.

SOURCE: Ohio Department of Education. NOTES: The table displays schools ranked in the top 10 percent of schools statewide in value-added score between 2009–10 and 2012–13. It also displays their district and county, their value-added index scores (the reading gain, in normal-curve equivalent units, divided by the standard error), and percentage of economically disadvantaged (ED) students. A VAM index score of +2.0 or higher is generally considered satisfactory (e.g., +2.0 is the cut-off point for an “A” VAM rating in the state’s rating system). From 2009–10 to 2012–13, an average of 2,598 Ohio schools received a value-added score in reading.

[1] The Ohio Department of Education reports math and reading value-add scores by school and district. High-schools containing grades 9–12 do not receive value-added scores. Ohio’s VAM computation only includes test-score gains in grades 4–8 (third-grade tests form the baseline year).

[2] Since only one school was ranked in the top 10 percent in all five past years, I look at just schools receiving top 10 percent rankings in each of the four most recent years.


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