Ohio Policy

Cris Gulacy-Worrel
NOTE: The Thomas B. Fordham Institute occasionally publishes guest commentaries on its blogs. The views expressed by guest...
A recent article in Education Week highlighted how an under-the-radar ESSA provision could spell trouble for states with multiple...
Last week, the Ohio Department of Education released school grades for the 2016-17 school year. These report cards offer Buckeye...
The Statehouse newspaper, Gongwer , recently ran a piece covering the ACT test results for Ohio’s graduating class of 2017. The...
As Ohio’s annual report cards are released this week, Fordham is gearing up to dive into the data and explore what it means about...
The Ohio Department of Education is expected to release report cards for the 2016-17 school year by the end of this week. Like an...
In response to widespread fears that too many students would fail to pass the state’s seven high school End Of Course (EOC) tests...
As part of the most recent state budget, Ohio lawmakers created alternative graduation pathways for the class of 2018 in response...
Back in July, the Columbus Dispatch posted an article entitled “Ohio high schoolers test poorly in math.” The story emerged from...
July and August might otherwise be sleepy months best reserved for recovering from Ohio’s biennial budget process, lounging...
John Mullaney
NOTES: John Mullaney is the Executive Director of the Nord Family Foundation. Both authors were part of the Straight A Fund...
The big squeeze continues. Ohio’s charter sector shrinks again as reforms enacted in 2012 and 2015 are fully implemented. The...
Somewhere between the right and the left – between the un-nuanced mantras of personal responsibility and big government – lie...
Last month, several urban Ohio school districts began sounding alarms over Ohio’s third-grade reading guarantee—a policy put in...
Interdistrict open enrollment allows students to attend public schools outside their district of residence. It is among the...

Getty Images/Paperkites

The Statehouse newspaper, Gongwer, recently ran a piece covering the ACT test results for Ohio’s graduating class of 2017. The headline trumpeted the fact that Ohio’s scores again topped the national average—definitely good news. But Ohio may not continue to outpace the rest of the country on this important gauge of college readiness—something it has accomplished for the past decade.

The reason doesn’t have much to do with the performance of Ohio schools or students; rather it has to do with the expanding pool of students who take the ACT. Instead of voluntary participation, as in the past, Ohio has now begun universal administration of the ACT (or SAT)[1] starting with the class of 2018. Requiring across-the-board testing—and paying for those costs—is sound state policy. There’s no reason why any student should be denied at least one opportunity to see how they stack up on college entrance exams. As a recent study indicates, universal testing can boost the four-year college-going rates of low-income students. Ohio lawmakers enacted the requirement that students take an entrance exam in a package of 2014 reforms that aim to better prepare young people for college or career; today, Ohio and twenty-four other states require either the SAT or ACT.

But Ohio’s average ACT score could slide as more lower-achieving pupils, who may not have participated in previous years, now take it. Consider the chart below, displaying average ACT scores from several decent-sized states that had universal ACT participation for the class of 2017. While Ohio’s average score looks impressive at first glance, it’s important to note that just 75 percent of its class of 2017 took the ACT—the last year in which it was optional and in all likelihood, mainly pursued by students who were considering college. If non-participants tend to struggle academically, then Ohio’s current average is somewhat inflated relative to the score it would have attained had all students participated.

Chart: Average ACT composite scores for Ohio versus similar-sized states with universal participation for the class of 2017.

Note: The chart shows “composite” scores, an average across the various ACT subjects (English, math, reading, and science) and is reported on a scale of 1 to 36. To put this score into context, The Ohio State University typically admits students with ACT scores between 28 and 32.

We cannot yet know for sure whether the class of 2018 will continue to outperform the national average on the ACT. I’m guessing that the “true” average score in Ohio fits somewhere between Minnesota and Wisconsin. Either way, it’ll be interesting to keep tabs in the coming years on the trends as a more representative population of Ohio students take the ACT.

[1] Districts could adopt the SAT instead of the ACT, which would reduce ACT test participation. Traditionally, few Ohio students take the SAT (less than 20 percent, among which a certain proportion would have taken both ACT and SAT), so it is likely that most districts will opt for the ACT over the SAT.

A recent article in Education Week highlighted how an under-the-radar ESSA provision could spell trouble for states with multiple high school diplomas. The provision outlines the definition of a regular high school diploma, which must be used to calculate a state’s four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate. Specifically, the definition of a regular high school diploma is: “the standard high school diploma awarded to the preponderance of students in the State that is fully aligned with State standards.”

The trouble that several states are running into is with the phrase “the preponderance of students in the State.” Preponderance, by definition, means a majority. In the past, some states offering multiple diplomas have calculated their graduation rates by adding up the percentage of students who earn each of the different diplomas. Under ESSA, states will only be permitted to count one of those diplomas—a move that could significantly lower graduation rates.

According to the EdWeek article, the provision was intended to ensure that the diplomas states award are adequately preparing all students. “Advocates for lower-income and minority students, and those with disabilities, were key voices at the table when that section of the bill was being drafted,” EdWeek journalist Catherine Gewertz notes. “Those students tend to earn disproportionate shares of the lower-level diplomas.” Translation: The architects of ESSA suspected that states might try to maintain high graduation rates by awarding diplomas tied to less stringent graduation standards.

This brings us to the Buckeye State. As you may recall, Ohio lawmakers recently created an additional graduation pathway for the class of 2018. According to supporters, this was a temporary exemption, a one-year opportunity to address an impending “graduation apocalypse.” Based on information from the Ohio Department of Education, the students most at risk of not graduating attend Ohio's poorest urban districts and charter schools. These students are the same ones who are most in need of high expectations, rigorous curriculum, and expanded opportunities. 

Ohio has done exactly what the feds predicted would happen—state policymakers have opted to lower graduation expectations rather than maintain high expectations for all students. The only reason Ohio might get away with this is because of a technicality. The new requirements aren’t a separate diploma, they’re just another pathway to the same general diploma that the majority of students receive—albeit, a pathway completely devoid of any demonstration of academic competence. Since the entire class of 2018 is able to take advantage of the new pathway, an argument can be made that the preponderance of Ohio students will still be earning the same diploma. It doesn’t matter that the kids who have effectively demonstrated their learning and readiness—likely more than 50 percent—will be awarded the same diploma as students who only showed up for 93 percent of their senior year and worked for 120 hours at a menial job. Nor does it matter that many of these same graduates will likely have a hard time in college or the workforce. That final graduation rate percentage is what matters.

Whether it technically aligns with federal statute or not, Ohio’s alternate pathway for the class of 2018 is a blatant workaround of higher expectations—the same kind of loophole that the new federal education law hoped to close. 

Last week, the Ohio Department of Education released school grades for the 2016-17 school year. These report cards offer Buckeye families, community members, and taxpayers an important annual review of the performance of the state’s 3,000 plus schools and 600 districts.

For many years, we at Fordham have kept a close eye on the performance of Ohio’s charter schools. We typically gauge their performance by comparing their results to district schools in the state’s “Big Eight” cities. We do this because most brick-and-mortar charters in Ohio are located in these districts (e.g., Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dayton).

In 2015-16, my analysis found some promising signs that the charter sector may be modestly outperforming Big Eight district schools on the state’s value-added measure, an indicator of schools’ impact on pupil growth over time.

How about this year? Let’s compare the A-F ratings that the state gives to schools on the two key report card ratings—the performance index (explained below, under Figure 1) and overall value added.

The first chart indicates that both charter and Big Eight district schools receive low ratings on the performance index. Roughly nine in ten schools in each sector receive Ds or Fs, a pattern that is nearly identical to the rating distribution from last year. In general, these results indicate that most students residing in Ohio’s urban communities have a long way to go, regardless of what schools they attend. (Of course, there are individual school exceptions across both sectors.)  

Figure 1: Distribution of A-F ratings on Ohio’s performance index, charter and district schools, 2016-17

Note: The performance index is a weighted measure of student proficiency, with greater weight assigned to schools when students achieve at higher levels. For purposes of this analysis—and this figure—the number of Big Eight district schools is 409; the number of charter schools is 223. Included is any brick-and-mortar charter school located in the county in which the Big Eight district is located (the same applies to Figure 2).

As a more poverty-neutral indicator, value-added ratings offer a clearer look at whether students are making learning gains. That’s a better gauge of schools’ effectiveness, i.e. their contributions to student learning.

Here we see greater differentiation in the A-F ratings for both sectors, with more urban district and charter schools receiving both high and low grades. On value added, charters fare modestly better than Big Eight district schools (20 versus 13 percent rated an A). While both sectors still have too many low performers, fewer charters received Fs (45 percent versus 62 percent in the district sector). The slight charter advantage we saw last year appears to persist with a second year of value-added results now included.[1]

Figure 2: Distribution of A-F ratings on Ohio’s overall value added measure, charter and district, 2016-17

Note: The 2016-17 ratings are based on a two-year average. The number of Big Eight district schools is 408 and the number of charter schools is 215.

* * *

Once again this year, Ohio’s school report cards show that too many low-income students struggle to meet state standards in key academic subjects. It is just as disconcerting that so many urban charter and district schools appear to have such a modest (or even negative) impact on student growth—schools with Cs, Ds, and Fs on value added. Thankfully, we do see pockets of excellence among the higher-poverty schools in the Big Eight—most clearly evident among those that produce As on value added, year after year. Many of these schools are run by traditional districts, while others are charters that deliver strong academic results for their students, often in the face of adversity. Regardless of “sector,” we should recognize, applaud, and reward the remarkable work these high-growth, high-poverty schools are doing.

[1] Last year, 22 percent of urban brick-and-mortar charters were rated an A versus 13 of urban district schools.


Cris Gulacy-Worrel

NOTE: The Thomas B. Fordham Institute occasionally publishes guest commentaries on its blogs. The views expressed by guest authors do not necessarily reflect those of Fordham.

The recent request by the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) to apply for Ohio’s Drop Out Prevention and Recovery (DOPR) designation has shined a spotlight on this unique type of alternative school and has created many misconceptions surrounding what they do, the students they serve, and how they serve them.

Those of us who have dedicated our careers to providing safe, inclusive, high-quality learning environments for our most challenged students think these misconceptions should be identified and exposed. DOPR is a status for which schools must apply and is outlined in state law. The designation has existed for many years. Only programs that meet the components set forth by law are approved by the Department of Education. DOPR schools must meet specified academic as well as financial objectives set by the Department. The designation is not a shelter for charter schools to utilize as a protection against public accountability for student performance, nor are drop out recovery waivers intended to be leveraged by schools not specializing in this specific student population. The designation is meant to provide an alternative system by which to gauge the successes of schools serving nontraditional students—those who by virtue of their life circumstances and past educational attainment are fundamentally different from students served in traditional high schools. These students’ educational gains are difficult to measure by traditional report metrics.

DOPR schools are a vital component of Ohio’s education landscape and have had great success with students who historically have not been served well by traditional educational models. National statistics show that over 1.2 million students drop out of high school each year in the United States alone, which is about 7,000 a day or about one student every 26 seconds. These students often face innumerable barriers to obtaining their high school diploma. These obstacles include teen pregnancy, incarceration and other problems with the law, full-time employment in order to financially support their families, health problems, expulsion, and other personal reasons. Many of them are several years behind their grade level, creating added urgency as well as challenges for students and the schools serving them.

An abundance of research shows that without a high school diploma, students have greatly reduced chances of success, and the costs to society are great. High school dropouts in the U.S. commit about 75 percent of crimes and earn on average $200,000 less income over their lifetime than those who obtain their high school diploma. Dropout recovery schools provide the specialization and expertise necessary to assist students who have fallen far behind their peers and help prevent students from falling through the cracks and failing to reach their full potential.

The vast majority of Ohio’s DOPR schools are located in brick-and-mortar buildings and do not serve students exclusively online, which many dropout recovery leaders/educators feel greatly contributes to their success. Every child converted from dropout to recovery creates a net economic gain of at least $292,000 between additional wages earned and the costs of social and legal services saved, not to mention the significant improvement of quality of life. The benefit to society is overwhelmingly positive.

Dropout recovery high schools are the last line of defense in serving our state’s most challenged students. The positive outcomes that these students receive through dropout recovery programs must not be eclipsed by the recent request, nor should the designation be used solely to evade closure. That would dilute the good work that is being done by DOPR schools across the state of Ohio and nationally.

Cris Gulacy-Worrel currently serves as Vice President of National Expansion for Learn4Life Concept Charter Schools, a non-profit charter management organization that manages schools serving over 30,000 students in several states, including Ohio's Flex High School.

Getty Images/Jacob Ammentorp Lund

Terry Ryan

Competition or cooperation? The district-charter school debate has swung back and forth between these alternative strategies since the first public charter schools opened twenty-five years ago. No group has striven harder over that period to find a workable balance than the Seattle-based Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE). Better Together: Ensuring Quality District Schools in Times of Charter Growth and Declining Enrollment is CRPE’s latest effort to bring a moderate, research-based middle-ground to the fraught charter/district relationship that is still too often defined by acrimony, blame, and zero-sum arguments.

Better Together builds on CRPE’s deep expertise in establishing and promoting “District-Charter Collaboration Compacts.” It grows out of the conversation of “more than two dozen policymakers, practitioners, researchers and advocates” that took place at CRPE’s behest in January. Can school districts and charter schools co-exist, even cooperate, in cities with overall declining student enrollments? Is there a “grand bargain” to be struck that could benefit both sectors while—most important—serving the best interests of students, voters, and taxpayers?

District-charter collaboration is especially challenging in communities with declining student enrollments. In Rust Belt cities like Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Dayton, the district population has declined by tens or hundreds of thousands of students. Detroit, for example, watched its district enrollment drop from 292,934 in 1970 to less than 50,000 students in 2014, while St. Louis shrank from 113,484 pupils to a paltry 27,017.

Yet these same cities are also home to some of the country’s highest percentages of charter attendees—more than half in Detroit and more than 30 percent in Cleveland, St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Dayton. Not surprisingly, many supporters of traditional districts blame their enrollment woes on charter competition. Never mind that their pupil populations were shrinking before the first charter school appeared.

Facts aside, as one school finance expert observed in Better Together, “Declining enrollment may not be charters’ fault, but it is their problem.” Districts are designed to grow, not contract. Districts face bona fide legacy costs (e.g., building maintenance, debt service, transportation, unfunded pension liabilities, and inflexible teacher contracts) that make it costly and painful to right size.

For example, “last in, first out” contract provisions require that when a reduction in force is necessary, the newest and least expensive teachers must depart—along with their energy and the district’s future work force. This can lead to almost absurd outcomes, such as the time in 2008 when Dayton conferred its “Teacher of the Year” award at the same time the recipient was handed his pink slip. This hurt not only the Dayton Public Schools, but also Dayton children who lost a top-notch teacher to a far less needy suburban district.

State policies also make it hard for districts to shrink—and for charters and districts to collaborate. As one district official put it in Better Together, “These problems are often exacerbated by state funding formulas that don’t adequately reflect enrollment changes, are outdated, or at times simply are ‘bizarre.’” Further, “In many places, they often pit charter schools against district schools, either by providing different per-pupil funding formulas or ignoring stickier ‘legacy costs.’”

In some states, conservative lawmakers are simply fed up with urban districts (and their liberal voters) that spend $20,000 or more per pupil but never deliver results. On the flip side, teacher union opposition to charters make it impossible in some communities for charters and districts to even hold a civil conversation, much less work together.

While Better Together focuses on the challenges facing urban districts and charters, the experiences and positions that it surfaces apply to rural communities, too. In Gooding, Idaho, population less than 1,400, a charter school opened in 2008 and 10 percent of the district’s pupils shifted into it during a single summer. This precipitated brutal fights in Gooding and in the Boise statehouse, with one side claiming that the charter would bleed the district of essential resources and the other saying that children needed education options and opportunities that the district couldn’t (or wouldn’t) provide. Rural districts and their charters need to figure out how to work better together as much as do those in declining metropolises.

Better Together offers some “first steps towards solutions” that are relevant to urban and rural communities alike. These include:

  • Finding ways to help districts reduce legacy costs;
  • Organizing new forms of tight-loose school governance where districts, mayors, or state-sanctioned entities provide quality control for all schools in a city, regardless of who manages them—and enabling school operators to run schools with minimal top-down mandates;
  • Joint advocacy where district officials and charter leaders work together for improved state policies such as weighted student funding and teacher pension reform;
  • Better research on the financial impact of charter schools and how districts in fact manage enrollment declines; and
  • Drawing lessons from other sectors (e.g., healthcare and energy) that have faced profound structural changes in recent years, and applying what works to school improvement efforts.

Some of the proposed solutions in Better Together are already being field-tested. For example, the 2012 Cleveland Plan for Transforming Schools (based in large part on CRPE research) created a Transformation Alliance that seeks to ensure that all new charter schools in the city are high quality. It scrapped rules making seniority the deciding factor in teacher layoffs, and it authorized the district to share local levy dollars with high-performing charters.

There’s much debate about how well this is working in Cleveland—and it’s not going to be easy anywhere. Better Together is honest about the challenges that such efforts face in places with shrinking populations. But it also makes a strong case for how communities and children benefit when school districts and charters work together.

SOURCE: Better Together: Ensuring Quality District Schools in Times of Charter Growth and Declining Enrollment, Center on Reinventing Public Education (September 2017).

Terry Ryan is the CEO of Bluum, an Idaho-based school reform organization.

You have no doubt seen numerous media stories regarding the recent release of school report card data in Ohio. As supporters of a robust accountability system, we urge you to pay attention to the stories and the ongoing discussion. The success of our public schools (charter and district) in doing the vital work with which they are entrusted must be assessed, reported, and analyzed. Schools which evidence success should be lauded, emulated, and expanded to reach as many students as possible. Schools which struggle in any area should be highlighted and helped to improve if possible.

None of these things can happen without robust data and clear-eyed analysis.

Fordham has worked for many years to be a source of unbiased analysis, research, and commentary on the state’s annual report card data. With Ohio’s most recent data release having occurred in mid-September, we have published the following:

Additionally, Fordham staff contributed to media reporting on the data from the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Dayton Daily News, and statewide public media via radio and television, among others.

In the coming weeks, we will be recommending improvements to the state’s report cards to help parents and the public make better use of the vital data.

Keep an eye on our Ohio Gadfly Daily blog, or sign up here to receive our biweekly e-newsletter so you won’t miss a thing. It’s too important not to stay in the loop.

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