Congratulations, Ohio. The state’s continued slow climb up the Education Week achievement ladder continues and shows that improvements put in place over the last decade are creating a strong educational infrastructure. See here, for the report (subscription needed).

But that’s all. Unfortunately, what Ohio’s fifth-place, B-minus finish (Maryland was first at B-plus) really shows is that adults in the state are better off than most students. The Buckeye State received good marks for our accountability program and we were okay on equity in financing, for example, but when it comes to actual student learning we aren’t doing so hot. It’s like getting all excited about how grand a brand new school building looks and forgetting that the important thing is what’s going on inside.

Still, perception is important. The Quality Counts survey is considered a big deal and gets lots of press coverage. State Superintendent Deborah Delisle gushed her relief when the annual results were issued earlier this month. “This report confirms what the members of Ohio’s educational community have known for several years – Ohio has a strong system that is viewed as a national leader,” she said. Delisle went on to praise administrators, teachers, policy makers, and students.

Unfortunately, students didn’t have much to do with it. Academic performance is actually a drag on our state’s ranking.

And that’s the rub for taxpayers. They are no doubt pleased that the state’s education system seems to be getting better but they also have a right to be confused. Ohio has the fifth-best education system in the nation? At a B-minus, according to Quality Counts, better than average.

Then why is everyone complaining so much about the schools? And why are children who received Bs in high school math, needing to take remedial algebra as first-year college students?

Or, why are many urban school districts never rated higher than a D on the state’s rating system – never mind that too many schools in those districts are rated F.

And then there are scores on national tests. Ohio’s fourth graders placed ninth in math in 2000 and 11th in 2009 on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). That’s the wrong direction for a school system that’s supposed to be improving. Eighth graders placed eighth in math in 2000 and 24th in 2009. Ouch. In reading, fourth graders placed 14th in 2002 and 11th in 2007 on the NAEP. Eighth graders placed ninth in reading in 2002 and 11th in 2007.

The fact is Ohio’s student achievement has never been fifth-best in any of these measures and, in just these brief examples, we’ve slipped backward in three of four.

Finally, why did we go through all the angst last year of fighting over new plans to “fix” the education system if it’s as good as Delisle says it is? Quality Counts evaluates what is currently in place, not the changes approved in Gov. Strickland’s education agenda that have yet to be phased in.

Here’s how Quality Counts rated Ohio, followed by Ohio’s national ranking in each category: Chance for Success, C+ (tied for 24); Standards, Assessment & Accountability, A ( 3); Teaching Profession, C+ ( 14 ); Finance, C+ (18); Transitions/Alignment, B- ( 10); K-12 Achievement, C- ( 14). The first five are all about what adults do in the education system.

And, actually, much of the Chance for Success has little to do directly with schools. It is more aligned with the economic well-being of students such as whether parents are employed, and their level of schooling and family income. This is important for an individual student’s educational success but it has nothing to do with what the public school system is doing.

In a piece online and to be published in the upcoming Education Next, Stanford University’s Margaret Raymond argues that the Chance for Success rating doesn’t even show the likelihood of student success. “Instead, they provide statistics that divert attention away from the things that actually do matter, such as high-quality teaching, a good range of school options, and success in early elementary schools,” she said.

“Until the measures that are incorporated into the Quality Counts ratings are more clearly tied to education outcomes, we are likely to see continued shifts in rankings that bear little resemblance to actual changes in education quality,” she wrote in a blog posting earlier this month.

Even the Assessment and Accountability area, which produced Ohio’s best showing, doesn’t indicate whether Ohio schools actually have adequate assessment and accountability systems, only that the state has a good plan on paper. In fact, most schools don’t have plans. (For a closer look at these categories, see former state board of education member Colleen Grady’s analysis here.)

But, clearly, a reasonable person might ask, what good is Ohio ranking third in assessment and accountability when the actual student achievement – on average – across the state was so low at C-minus? In fact, there is a huge disconnect with most of what Quality Counts measures and the bottom line of what schools are in business to do, which is to educate kids.

Flushed with success, Governor Strickland touted the fifth-place achievement in yesterday’s State of the State address and the Ohio Department of Education played up the ranking in its application for federal Race to the Top funds. Ohio wants to be first in the rankings within four years and we might just make it – especially by Education Week’s metrics, where students don’t count for much.

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