State Superintendent Heffner makes case for more demanding K-12 expectations

Ohio teachers and administrators work tirelessly to deliver an
excellent education to the state’s 1.8 million students, said State
Superintendent of Public Instruction Stan Heffner at the annual Ohio
School Boards Association’s  conference earlier this week.  So why are
fewer than one in three of Ohio’s fourth graders reading at a proficient
level (according to
the National Assessment of Educational Progress)? Worse, why are
achievement scores unimpressive among not only the Buckeye State’s urban districts, but even among wealthier suburban districts, especially in contrast to students internationally?

Heffner argued lackluster performance in K-12 isn’t a product of
laziness, ineffectiveness, or incompetence on the part of educators and
leaders. Rather it results from an outdated system that “traps them in
mediocrity,” and has everyone working to the lowest common denominator. 
But this wasn’t just a hollow declaration, or a convenient way for
Ohio’s school chief to shift blame away from demoralized educators and
cast it vaguely on “the system.”

Ohio’s educational framework quite literally is the problem.
Namely academic standards, expectations, accountability structures,
proficiency cut-offs, and the fact that the “system” shields us from
brutal realities rather than serving as a true yardstick of how our
schools and children are doing. According to Heffner, student
performance in Ohio is middling because academic expectations for
students are set too low. Ohio’s education system focuses on getting
students over a threshold of “minimum competence” instead of expecting
excellence. As a result student performance (and teachers’) languishes
once that bar has been cleared. (For example, once a student passes the
Ohio Graduation Test in 10th or 11th grade, it’s
smooth sailing from there.) Compounding this reality is the fact that
our statewide accountability system lacks rigor, and masks
hard-to-swallow truths from parents, taxpayers, educators, and the
students themselves.

Lest this sound exaggerated or alarmist, Heffner presented staggering
facts illustrating that Ohio’s expectations for (and characterization
of) student performance are falling short, no matter which way you slice
it:

  • Two words: grade inflation. Last year, 57 percent
    of Ohio’s school district earned Excellent or Excellent with Distinction
    (A or A+). The number of districts earning that grade has more than
    doubled in five years.
  • Students aren’t college-ready. Of those districts
    rated A or A+, 41 percent of their graduating students (attending Ohio
    colleges) require remediation in reading and/or math. Only 28 percent of
    students in the class of 2010 who took the ACT were college-ready
    (scoring 22 or higher) in all four content areas.
  • Proficiency on our state exams has all but lost its meaning.
    A sixth grader can earn proficiency on the state reading exam by
    answering just 35 percent of questions correctly. To be proficient in
    seventh-grade math, a student needs to answer just 32 percent correctly.
    Even among advanced proficiency (the highest of five levels) there is a
    staggering degree of inflation: to be advanced on the Ohio Graduation
    Test (OGT) a student must answer 79 percent of questions right in
    reading and just 77 percent in math. And the OGT really isn’t a
    gatekeeper for college, either; it’s based on an eighth or ninth-grade
    reading level and according to Heffner has not a single “algebra-two
    level question” on it.
  • Comparisons with other tests confirm that Ohio’s is watered down. Fordham has long argued that NCLB’s high-stakes environment has led to a dumbing down
    of academic standards – a race to the bottom that’s easily exposed when
    you compare NAEP scores to a state’s results. How else might you
    explain the fact that while 43 percent of Ohio’s fourth graders scored
    “advanced” in reading on the Ohio Achievement Assessment, but just nine
    percent achieved advanced on NAEP? Similar gaps persist when you compare
    Ohio’s achievement scores against international tests (PISA, TIMSS).

With gainful employment increasingly
dependent on having post-secondary education, the old model of minimum
competence won’t cut it if Ohio hopes to prepare its young people for
the jobs and opportunities of the future. 

Ohio is smart to adopt the Common Core standards in English Language
Arts and mathematics, and in revisiting it social studies and science
standards. Those standards will be fully implemented by the 2014-15
school year, but there’s no sense in waiting until then to start raising
the academic bar. Raising expectations (and increasing proficiency
cut-offs some each year until 2014-15) will condition students and
educators to the higher academic demands and mean higher rates of
passage on state exams after the new standards go live in 2014-15. In
the interim, this could mean that passage rates drop. Unsurprisingly,
this conversation elicited frustration and defensiveness from some local
school board members in the crowd, who feared having to admit that
their Excellent with Distinction-rated schools aren’t delivering a
gold-star education to students, and who theorized that it’d be
difficult to meet higher demands without more state dollars.

Heffner’s only misstep during the speech was perhaps not pushing back
enough on this complaint. First and foremost, Ohio’s accountability
system must serve as an accurate gauge of how students, teachers,
schools, and districts are performing against real world expectations.
This is true even if that makes schools  look worse off in the short
term. To do anything less is to mislead our educators, our communities,
and our children.

Heffner deserves credit for spurring this honest conversation and he
will surely need support and encouragement from the Governor’s office,
state board members, lawmakers, and educators out in the field when the
going gets tough. Instead of making excuses for the state’s schools –
that times are tough, that federal dollars have withered, that more and
more students are coming to school with painful personal and academic
challenges (all of which are true but don’t pardon us from our
responsibility to students)–  Heffner insists that Ohio’s educators have
got to do better regardless of these difficulties and
deficiencies. This starts with an honest assessment of where we’re
falling short, and what we need to do to get better.

It seems ironic that while society in general is starting to realize that the over-coddling, self-esteem pushing mentality doesn’t always serve kids very well, and that qualities like grit, perseverance in the face of obstacles, and learning how to handle failure
are attributes worth cultivating in young people, we’ve yet to apply to
that concept to the adults that work with children every day.

Kudos to Heffner for stepping up to the plate on this, and for
supporting statewide rankings for all districts and school buildings
according to Performance Index score; more accurate data on teacher effectiveness
that reveals great variations in quality instead of lumping all
teachers together as “satisfactory” (note, Heffner acknowledges that
Ohio’s value-added calculation might still need some work);
and the need for higher expectations and more rigorous ways to measure
how schools are delivering on those expectations. As Steve Jobs said,
“Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment
where excellence is expected.”Heffner has done a fine job of setting the
bar for Ohio and now the state’s educators need to meet it.

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