You live in Ohio and you send your kids to a school district with an "Excellent" designation. They're getting an excellent education, right? Not so fast. Most parents understand that the designation has something to do with test scores, but we often feel like we're looking at the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain: "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!" We're not really supposed to know what's going on back there - the professionals know what they're doing, and if they say the school is "excellent," then surely it's true. But sometimes when we pull back the curtain, we find that it's all been an illusion. From the Columbus Dispatch (HT: Colleen Grady):
"Examining schools' passing rates on state exams often leads to debate about whether Ohio asks enough of teachers and students. Is the bar too low when, as in the case of the sixth-grade reading test, students must earn only 15 of 49 points (31 percent) to pass?
The minimum number of points to pass is called a 'cut score.'
Third-graders must earn at least 31 of 49 points to pass their reading exam and 33 of 52 points to pass math (in both cases, about 63percent). The third-grade tests are easier, which is why students are expected to correctly answer more questions than on other tests. No other Ohio exam requires students to earn that many points to pass.
On the flip side, no other Ohio exam requires students to earn so few points as the sixth-grade reading exam."The chart below (from the Ohio Department of Education via The Dispatch) shows the "cut scores" required to "pass" the tests at various grade levels. "Proficient" is considered passing in Ohio. For example, on the Ohio Graduation Test (OGT), which tests students' 10th grade skills - yes, you read that right...the Ohio Graduation Test is a 10th grade proficiency test - students must get 20.5/46 correct, or 45.4% to pass the math section. For reading, they only need 41.4%; science, 46.9%; social studies, 48% and writing, 55.2% (if you're having difficulty reading the chart, you can try pressing ctrl+ on your keyboard to enlarge it).
To receive an "Excellent" designation, a high school must meet benchmarks in attendance, graduation rates, and proficiency test scores. Here's an example of a state report card from Chippewa High School, my district, which has had an Excellent rating several years running. The requirement for "Excellent" is that 75% of 10th graders must achieve "Proficient" status on the OGT (85% by the time the students reach 11th grade). Those would look like pretty rigorous standards if we hadn't seen the cut scores above and we didn't know that "Proficient" means getting an average score of 47% on the individual test sections!
Another factor The Dispatch article discusses is the disparity that often exists between different schools with the same rating. Two schools with "Excellent' ratings can look very different when we pull back the curtain and examine the test results further. Looking at the chart above, we see in the first example, two schools with a 65% passing rate on last year's third grade reading test. However, the first school, Ecole Kenwood, had an average composite score of 414.4, which is nearly in the "Accelerated" category. The second school, Maybury Elementary, had an average composite score of 399.3, which falls into the "Basic" category, which is below "Proficient." Furthermore, Ecole Kenwood had 52.2% of its students in the "Accelerated" and "Advanced" categories. Maybury? 34.7%. Yet in the school report card system, these schools look exactly the same. If you had the choice, which school would you send your child to?
How did we get here?
Colleen Grady was on the State Board of Education (SBE) when this system was adopted. She gave us some insight into the process on her State of Ohio Education blog yesterday:
"There are a couple of things left out of this story. First, when the state board adopted the original cut scores, the resolution included a requirement that the cut scores to [sic] reviewed and raised. (Some board members argued vigorously for higher standards to no avail. All we could get was a commitment to come back in the third year and revise cut scores upward.) It never happened. Second, the cut scores were set in the first year of test administration when scores and passage rates were expected to be lower.
That's right. Everyone in the room knew the bar was set very low and that proficiency was an illusion. We were complicit in a cruel hoax perpetrated on students, parents and taxpayers.
And the excellent and effective banners that hang in schools and districts around the state? Don't they signal quality education? Unfortunately, they often mean nothing of the sort."I can tell you that Colleen was one of the board members who "argued vigorously for higher standards." Unfortunately, she was outnumbered on the board.
Now let me add a huge disclaimer before I go on: Test scores aren't the only way to assess a student's abilities, skills, and proficiency. For some students, it's a terrible measure of what they know because some kids are just poor test takers. And some kids are born knowing how to test well. In a perfect world, each child could receive a comprehensive assessment that would include multiple factors, some of them not test-related. However, when we're talking about the public schools and public tax dollar accountability and millions of students in the state of Ohio, testing of some sort is probably a necessary evil.
The good news is that Ohio is most likely heading to a new assessment system, at least for the high school level. Within the next few years, the Ohio Graduation Test will probably be replaced with....something....most likely a test aligned to national standards, which means it will be completely different than the OGT. I do feel for the poor teachers who have to continually make major changes in their curriculum and teaching methods in order to comply with the "flavor of the month" from the State. I can't imagine how frustrating that must be.
In the meantime, if you're interested, you can do some further checking into your child's school by running a power user report at the Department of Education site. Click on "Begin," then "Test Scores," then "Proficiency Levels (building)," then select the year and school and run the report. You'll be able to see the breakdown of student test scores for the school by proficiency level.
Why is all this important? First, it's always good to make informed choices when it comes to our children's education. In Ohio, we do have options available to us; there are public schools, private schools, homeschools, charter schools, and open enrollment. If you live in a district with a poorly performing school, you may be eligible for the EdChoice Scholarship, which may provide a tuition voucher for your child to attend a private school. If you're armed with information, you can feel more confident in your educational choices.
Second, it's a reminder to us that elections have consequences - state and local school board elections are important! How many of us can name our representative on the state school board? How about our local school board members? I know I've been guilty of walking into the booth on election day and wishing I had taken the time to find out who these people running for the school board were! It's often difficult to find information about school board candidates, but our children's education is has to be made a priority and we need to elect school board members who will adopt high standards and won't settle for dumbed-down test scores.
Third, it's important to let our current legislators know that we want rigorous standards in Ohio. In the coming months Governor Kasich and the Ohio legislature will making decisions about which direction to go in the area of testing. The details will be hashed out at the State Board of Education. If you don't believe that a school with a 47% pass rate should be designated "Excellent" and you want more meaningful assessments for your children, then demand it from our elected officials. A stunning 39% of Ohio students must enroll in remedial courses in their first year of college. In other words, their high schools did not adequately prepare them for college. We must demand and expect more for our children.
I hope I've been able to demystify Ohio's state report card system a bit. I'd love to hear your thoughts.
[updated 3/21/11 12:47 PM]