When the next President of the United States and the 113th Congress are sworn into office next year, they’ll be faced with an impending “fiscal cliff” – the perilous combination of cuts in government spending and tax increases that are set to take effect soon. Business people, government officials, and economists all worry that the cliff will slow the U.S. economy to an even greater crawl—meaning fewer jobs, greater market volatility, and negative economic growth.

In the education world, another cliff is on the horizon as the transition to the Common Core looms. In Ohio, let’s call it the 2014-15 PARCC “proficiency cliff.” Everyone – from local educators and parents to state policymakers – should be paying attention and working to ensure student academic progress in Ohio doesn’t slam to a halt like the nation's economy might. Consider the chart below.

Chart 1: Ohio Academic Achievement (OAA) proficiency rates versus projected PARCC proficiency rates, fourth-grade math, for select Montgomery County traditional districts and charter schools (ch).

Source: 2011-12 OAA proficiency rates and PARCC proficiency rates (based on 2011-12 OAA advanced and accelerated rates) are from June 2012 ODE data set. [1]

What does the chart show? A steep drop in student achievement when the PARCC exams (tests in math and English language arts aligned to the Common Core standards) arrive in 2014-15. The elements of the chart are as follows:

  • The horizontal axis. It shows select school districts in the Dayton area, ranging from urban to suburban school districts. Three urban charters schools are also included.
  • The vertical axis. It shows the districts’ proficiency rate (in fourth-grade math). The proficiency rate refers to the percentage of students who “pass” the state’s standardized test. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, each state defines a proficiency cut score for its own battery of K-12 standardized tests.
  • The blue vertical bars. These show the districts’ proficiency rates on last year’s Ohio Achievement Assessment (OAA) in fourth-grade math. In Dayton City School District, for example, 45 percent of fourth graders scored proficient or above in math; in Oakwood City School District, 96 percent of fourth graders scored proficient or above.
  • The orange vertical bars. These indicate districts’ projected proficiency rates when Ohio implements the Common Core in 2014-15.

What does all of this information tell us? Overall, that student achievement will plummet in two years. A few examples of the proficiency cliff include:

  • Dayton City Schools’ proficiency rate declines 30 percentage points, from 45 to 15 percent.
  • Oakwood City Schools decline 20 points, from 96 to 76 percent.
  • Centerville City Schools decline 31 points, from 89 to 58 percent.
  • Emerson Academy (charter school) declines 37 points, from 58 to 21 percent.

In large part these drops are because the new PARCC exams will be more difficult and proficiency will be tougher to attain. (The PARCC exams are currently being field tested and the cut score will be defined in 2015. For a timeline, see slide 12 of this PowerPoint from the Florida Department of Education.)

But Ohio’s looming proficiency cliff is also due to the fact that our current cut scores (the minimum score needed to pass a state test) are appallingly low and in no way are connected to what can be coined college or career ready. For example, in 2011-12 a fourth grader needed to get 23 out of 49 questions right on the reading exam and only 25 out of 52 test questions correct on the math exam to be proficient. Ohio set its proficiency cut scores in the early 2000s and unlike other states have never ratcheted them up along the way.

These factors taken together, the Ohio Department of Education forecasts (and we agree) that only those students who currently test in the “advanced” and “accelerated” achievement levels, the two levels above proficient, on the state’s tests can be safely assumed as proficient under the PARCC exams. (See slide 29 of ODE’s presentation at Fordham’s February 2012 Common Core event for more.)

If the decline in proficiency rates is not well understood by Ohio’s educators, lawmakers, taxpayers, and parents, it will cause reverberations across the state. Will people accept a very blunt assessment of how many kids are truly excelling at school and use the information to push for improvements? Or will there be public backlash against the higher performance standards of the Common Core and the PARCC and calls for retreating to the state’s previous standards and tests? Will the Common Core survive this “shock” to the accountability and testing system? Or will this reform stall at the start (or sooner)?

Like the policy makers inside the D.C. beltway who are handwringing over the fiscal cliff, education policy makers here in Columbus are doing some handwringing of their own. In 2012-13, the Wisconsin Department of Education will be making a gradual adjustment toward the PARCC proficiency standards by tying its standardized test results to its NAEP results. The State Board of Education would likewise be wise to prepare the public for the shock of the PARCC exams by reporting more PARCC or NAEP-like proficiency rates in 2012-13 and 2013-14.

As one educator remarked in our recent report about early implementation of the Common Core in Ohio, ODE “needs to ‘hammer home’ the message that the previous rating of ‘proficient’ was grossly dishonest.” True, and furthermore, Ohio’s policy makers should make very well known the consequences of going a decade with a deceptive definition of proficiency: When a truer definition is adopted, proficiency rates will fall, right off a cliff.

[1] ODE’s October data release did not include test results disaggregated by individual achievement level, only the percentage of students at or above proficient. For consistency’s sake, I use the June release of 11-12 OAA results for both the current and projected proficiency rates instead of the October release of proficiency results. (June results are unverified by the district). The difference in the proficiency rates is small (on average, for all Ohio traditional districts, less than 1 percentage point).

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