Some of the most highly regarded school districts in Greater Cincinnati had schools with D’s and F’s on their state report cards released Thursday.
State officials say it’s a sign that even schools and districts previously rated Excellent or higher still have work to do to help certain groups of students succeed.
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- School officials, parents react to new report cards
Ohio’s new report cards mark the largest overhaul of the state’s school and district grading system since its inception roughly a decade ago.
State report cards are one of the main ways parents, taxpayers, business people and community leaders judge the quality of their schools. And they have far-reaching implications – the results can affect everything from property values and tax rates to a community’s reputation.
The new, tougher report cards are a “call to action” to force districts to improve their students’ education, Ohio Superintendent Richard A. Ross said Thursday.
Instead of the traditional categories ranging from Excellent with Distinction to Academic Emergency, these report cards have letter grades in multiple categories – changes that make it impossible to compare these report cards with those in years past. For example: The old Excellent with Distinction does not equal an “A” under the new rating system, nor does the previous lowest rating of Academic Emergency equal an “F.”
Ross, however, said the new ones give much more detail – which may be “painful” for districts.
For example, some districts that previously were rated Excellent with Distinction got D’s and F’s in some categories, most often on how well they educate children with disabilities. Among the 363 schools in Greater Cincinnati, 64 earned D’s or F’s in the report card measure of whether children with disabilities made a year’s worth of academic progress.
As for districts as a whole, only 19 of the 49 districts in Greater Cincinnati avoided getting any D’s or F’s on district report cards.
Among those are Madeira, Wyoming, Indian Hill and Mason – local districts that scored highest, second highest, third and seventh in the state when ranked by the Performance Index, perhaps the most important measure in the report cards. The index is a composite of student test scores.
An analysis of the grades shows that they correlate closely with the income level and poverty of school districts.
Of the 135 school districts above the state average income of $51,626, 91 percent scored an A in the “standards met” category, while just 41 percent of the 474 districts below the state average income received an A.
And among the 360 districts where student poverty levels were lower than the state average, 74 percent earned an A, while only 20 percent of the 249 districts with above-average poverty received an A.
But that’s just one category.
Muddying the waters is the fact that each school and district received up to nine letter grades in various categories in this report card, but they won’t have one overall grade. Those does not come until 2015.
The state has warned that trying to average this year’s nine grades into one overall grade won’t accurately reflect the overall performance of a school or district. Certain categories will be weighed more heavily than others – Ross said state leaders haven’t decided how all the report card measures will be weighed – and there are more letter grade categories to come next year.
That’s frustrating for parents, who say they want to know if what had been an Excellent district last year earns an A or an F this year.
“That would be bothersome,” said Teresa Kitzmann, a parent of twin boys attending Elmwood Place Elementary.
At least one state leader says the new report cards are doing more harm than good.
“The state’s new school grading system deserves an ‘F’ for the confusion it has caused for parents across the state,” said state Senate Democratic Leader Eric Kearney of North Avondale.
“Instead of providing more clarity on the performance of Ohio’s schools, the report cards released (Thursday) only succeeded in making good schools look bad. That isn’t fair to students and teachers who work hard and score well, but today find themselves victims of constantly shifting standards.”
The region’s largest district is an example.
Superintendent Mary Ronan said Cincinnati’s performance as a district is similar to last year, when state report cards rated it in Continuous Improvement (similar to a C).
This year’s performance index score for the district slipped just one point (out of 120 points) from last year’s report card and the district’s third-grade reading levels are the best they’ve ever been, Ronan said.
But on paper, parents will only see six F’s, two C’s and one D.
Hartwell and Sands Montessori, two Cincinnati schools that were Excellent with Distinction last year, each had at least one F on the new report card. The district’s gifted school, Hyde Park, earned only a C in the gifted category. The academic powerhouse Walnut Hills High School, which Ronan’s daughter attends, got mostly A’s, but also two F’s.
Walnut Principal Jeff Brokamp was not concerned. Ohio is in the process of transitioning to new curriculum standards and new tests. Many educators thought the state should have waited until the transition was finished before overhauling the grading system.
“We have other business that we think is more important than chasing a test that we think is a bad test,” said Brokamp. “So we didn’t and we won’t. We have a curriculum we use that’s time-tested and proven. That’s what we use.”
Ronan expects the district’s dip will be temporary, though it may take a few years to rise back up. “Our educators will meet this higher bar in the years to come,” she said.
The report cards have stirred a debate about whether districts with large numbers of disadvantaged students – often called subgroups – are penalized more in this report card than in prior ones. Subgroups include minorities, English language learners, students from low-income homes and students with disabilities.
Locally, most districts with diverse student populations had low grades on measures involving the subgroups.
Gary Pack, superintendent of Princeton City Schools, one of the most diverse districts in the state, said homogenous districts with wealthy students aren’t measured the same as districts with more subgroups. Andrew Jackson, superintendent of Northwest schools, also a diverse district, said the report card grade calculations are too harsh.
But Ross said it’s important to grade districts on how well they serve those very groups. The previous report cards, Ross said, concealed signs that some schools were doing a poor job educating some subgroups of students.
“If a school or district gets a lower grade than expected, that doesn’t necessarily mean students got a poorer education than they did the year before,” he said. “But schools will have to work to meet higher expectations.”
There will be no punitive ramifications for districts receiving poor grades this year, although years of failure will eventually trigger a review by an Academic Distress Commission. Rather, the report cards should be used to inform the public and improve education, Ross said.
Many educators cautioned against using the new measurements as the sole method to judge a school.
Even Mason, with higher than average grades, said the new report cards do not give a comprehensive picture.
“Rankings matter, but they often don’t tell the whole story. While we’re proud that our children are performing at some of the very highest levels in the state, there is more to a high-quality education than what’s measured on the state tests,” said Mason Superintendent Gail Kist-Kline.
“It is increasingly important that we personalize education for each student. We need to meet students where they are and maximize their potential,” she said.
At Southwest Ohio’s second largest district, Lakota schools, the previous rating system labeled the district “Excellent with Distinction,” the highest. But under the new report cards, some of its elementary schools were graded D’s and F’s in categories that measure “annual measurable objectives,” a newly created measure of the achievement gaps between the general student populace and subgroups.
“Lakota is at a critical juncture,” said Karen Mantia, superintendent of the district, which has a levy on the November ballot. “Resources will be necessary to ensure the district keeps the A in achievement rating, and the A rating of moving every student forward in their learning. While one test does not portray the entire student learning picture, it provides a snapshot of strengths and improvement areas.”
Some parents said they don’t trust any report card that is based mostly on state tests given once a year.
Jeffrey Jordan, father of a Mount Healthy sophomore, said report cards have painted an incomplete picture of how teachers at the district’s junior/senior high school “show a huge interest in my son’s education.”
“I’ve seen a lot of progress in my son’s academics,” he said. “I’d give (the school) an A-minus or a B.”