Current testing scandal is an opportunity to improve Ohio’s education accountability system

Rigorous academic standards and high-stakes accountability for schools and educators alike are important for school improvement efforts. The states where students have made the most significant academic gains over the last decade (for example, Massachusetts and Florida) have had high academic standards, assessments aligned to those standards – complete with high cut scores, and transparent systems for sharing school and student results through district and school “report cards.” The fact is standardized testing has proven to be the best, most objective tool for measuring both student and teacher success.

This is important to remember as Ohio deals with a widening scandal around allegations of “data fudging” and “manipulation of attendance records” to improve test scores and school report cards. Some Buckeye State educators and lawmakers have suggested that the underlying problem here is accountability, or that the state’s report card has taken on “way too much importance.” Accountability, however, is not the problem. The Columbus Dispatch editorial board got it exactly right when writing:

It’s true that the report card is short of perfect; it is an attempt to tell an extremely complex story – how effective a school district is, allowing for all of its advantages and disadvantages – in a few numbers and phrases. But even so, it is a valuable tool to ensure that educators strive for improvement. To back off now would be harmful.

In the short term, the state must investigate these allegations; and if school employees are found to have wrongly manipulated data, they should be dealt with accordingly.

In the longer term, Ohio should make improvements to its accountability system, and what it reports on school and student success. The state has made a serious commitment to this effort by embracing not only the Common Core academic standards in English language arts and mathematics but also by committing itself to working with 22 other states in developing next-generation K-12 assessments in both core subjects by 2015. Ohio is also working to develop new standards in science and social studies, and new assessments for these subjects will also come online in 2015.

Is there pressure on educators to improve their craft and help improve student performance? Yes and it is appropriate.

If Ohio stays true to its commitments, many of the state’s school buildings and districts will see a drop in their report card ratings. State Superintendent Stan Heffner shared data at our February 2012 Common Core event that showed the percentage of third graders proficient in reading would drop from 80 percent under current standards to about 35 percent under the Common Core, while in math it would drop even further, from 82 to 26 percent. The numbers are equally stark in other grades.

Such numbers are not an attack on schools or on the performance of educators, but rather a truthful recognition that our students, educators, and schools need to elevate their performance in coming years. We have been deceiving ourselves and our children. The U.S. leads the world in annual spending on its schools, but our kids are falling further and further behind other countries in math and science scores.

Is there pressure on educators to improve their craft and help improve student performance? Yes and it is appropriate. Too many of our students aren’t making the progress they need to be successful.

But, just as educators and students need to improve their performance so does our accountability system. This means not only adopting new standardized assessments through PARCC, but also expanding how we measure success and report it through our state report cards. Ohio was one of the first states to incorporate value-added measures into its school report cards. These should be expanded to additional grades and subjects (currently, valued-added results are available in reading and math, for grades four through eight). Test scores, both in terms of absolute achievement and growth, should be included in any sort of revamped report card.

But, other indicators of success beyond state test scores could also be incorporated. This is especially needed in how high school success is gauged. The Ohio Graduation Test is set at or below a ninth-grade achievement level in both math and reading. Superintendents have long argued for a more meaningful approach to measuring high school student success by using a basket of indicators like ACT/SAT scores, AP test performance, college entrance rates, college remediation rates, and the persistence of students in higher education. Ohio already collects much of this information to some degree on its high schools. For graduates who don’t go to college the state could use Department of Labor and other data systems to track what happens to students who enter the workforce or the armed services.

Ohio can take advantage of the spotlight being shined on its accountability system to revamp and improve how it rates school and school district performance. Next generation report cards should include test scores, growth measures, and other objective measures of success. Getting the mix just right will take time and require modifications along the way. But everyone benefits by knowing how well our schools are doing and how they can get better.

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