Ohio Senate maintains state's commitment to high-quality standards

Last week, the Ohio Senate passed House Bill 487, also known as the Education Mid Biennium Review (MBR) with overwhelming support (by a vote of twenty-seven to five). The MBR contains a wide variety of education-policy changes, including some modifications that affect Ohio’s academic content standards and assessments.

Ohio’s current learning standards, adopted in 2010 by the State Board of Education, include standards for students in grades K–12 in English language arts, math, science, and social studies. When the standards were adopted four years ago, there was public input but little fanfare or controversy. That changed about a year ago, when critics began focusing on the math and English language arts standards, a.k.a. the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).

As opposition to the CCSS heated up all over the country (the standards were adopted by forty-five states), the focal point in Ohio was House Bill 237, which proposed repealing CCSS completely. The bill, sponsored by Representative Andy Thompson, received two hearings in the House Education Committee, with the last hearing in November 2013 drawing more than 500 people to the Statehouse.

The Senate’s changes in the MBR address some of the chief concerns raised at the November bill hearing. The key proposed changes are described below.

  • Reinforce local control: The bill introduces statutory language designating school-district boards as the sole authority in determining and selecting textbooks, instructional materials, and academic curriculum. It also requires local school boards to establish a parental advisory committee to review the selection of textbooks, reading lists, and academic curriculum. While CCSS supporters have consistently maintained that curriculum would remain a local decision, these changes add legal certainty to that assertion.
  • Protect state independence: Ohio, like every state that adopted the CCSS, did so willingly and has the ability to withdraw from the standards at any time. In fact, Indiana has done exactly that (for better or worse). The Senate language expressly prohibits the state from entering into any agreement that would give control over the development, adoption, or revision of academic standards to any other entity—including the federal government. It also prohibits the State Board of Education from entering a multistate consortium for the development of science or social-studies standards. (That’s just as well, because the “national” standards for science and social studies range from mediocre to awful.)
  • Allow for public review: While the public has always had the opportunity to weigh in when the state adopts academic content standards, the Senate’s language adds some additional structure to the process. It creates academic standards review committees for English language arts, math, science, and social studies. The committee’s membership includes the state superintendent, chancellor of the Board of Regents, an educator, a parent, and three content-area experts with members appointed by the Speaker of the House, president of the Senate, and governor. The respective committees have the ability to review the standards and assessments in their content area to determine if they are both appropriate and support improved student performance. However, the State Board of Education retains statutory responsibility for the adoption of content standards.
  • Protect student data privacy: In an era where identity theft and monitored communications (sometimes by our own government) have become commonplace, it’s reasonable for parents to express apprehension about how their children’s educational records are used and who has access to them. This issue became a rallying cry for CCSS critics. The Senate’s changes require the State Board of Education to provide strict safeguards to protect the confidentiality of personally identifiable student data. In addition, in the course of testing, it prohibits the collection or sharing of personal information about the student or the student’s family with any entity, including the federal or state government.
  • Smooth the transition to the new standards and assessments: The CCSS are far more rigorous than Ohio’s previous standards in math and English language arts (which were mediocre), and the new state assessments in those areas (PARCC exams) are also expected to be more challenging. As a result, it is likely that proficiency scores around the state will fall considerably when the new test is administered. This has prompted angst among educators around the state, as many of the state’s accountability measures and sanctions are tied to academic performance. The Senate has proposed delaying any consequences for schools or districts that struggle on state assessment results and earn low grades on the state report card during the 2014–15 school year. These include sanctions related to No Child Left Behind, formation of academic-distress commissions, new eligibility for EdChoice Scholarships, and automatic closures for low-performing charter schools. It has also allowed but not required districts and teachers to delay using student-achievement data for teacher evaluations next year. Finally, it’s softening the impact of the new assessments themselves by allowing districts to administer paper-and-pencil versions during the first year (in the future they’ll be online) at no charge. This will give districts more time to build the required technological infrastructure.

It’s too early to tell which of these changes will become law as the MBR still has to go to conference committee to allow the House and Senate to work out their differences. However, with these changes, the Ohio Senate appears to have effectively threaded the needle. It has reasserted Ohio’s commitment both to high-quality standards designed to prepare our students for success after high school and to rigorous assessments aligned to those standards. Meanwhile, the Senate has rightly listened to the reasonable concerns of parents and teachers across the state. Hopefully, educators around the state can breathe a little easier knowing that the standards they’ve been working hard to implement over the past four years won’t be changed in the final hour.

Chad L. Aldis
Chad L. Aldis is the Vice President for Ohio Policy and Advocacy of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.