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Does the New Ohio School Report Card System Penalize Schools for Diversity?

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Tuesday, August 20, 2013 at 7:30 AM

Diversity quilt

Oregon DOT / Flickr

For the first time this year, the report cards Ohio uses to rate public schools will give schools letter grades based on how much a school closes the achievement gap between different groups of students.

The grades are intended to answer the question, "Is every student in a school succeeding  regardless of race, income or disability?"

But some school leaders are concerned that the way the state measures how well schools close the achievement gap penalizes schools that are becoming more diverse.

"This is supposed to make it easier to understand the quality of education you're getting in your children's school district but it really feels very much like diverse, impoverished school districts are being set up," said Amy Crouse, associate superintendent in the Princeton school district near Cincinnati.

Unintended consequences

Ohio isn't the first state to discover what may be unintended consequences in designing new school grading systems.

In Indiana, former state superintendent Tony Bennett asked his staff to tweak that state's new A-F grading formula in 2012 after he learned that one charter school founded by a major GOP donor would receive low marks.

Those relatively minor changes to the statewide accountability system had statewide implications: A total of 165 schools saw higher grades as a result of the "tweaks," StateImpact Indiana reports.  Bennett, who went on to serve as Florida's education chief, resigned earlier this month after the Associated Press reported on the grade changes.

The issue

The part of the new report cards that some Ohio school districts are concerned about is a new measure called "annual measurable objectives." The measure compares how much progress students in certain groups make towards statewide goals for standardized tests in reading and math and for graduation rates.

It applies to each racial and ethnic group as well as low-income students, students with disabilities and students learning English.[related_content align="right"]

But schools must have at least 30 students in a category -- say African Americans -- to get a grade for that category of students in the annual measurable objectives area.

The way the state calculates a school's "annual measurable objectives" grade is based on the difference between the percentage of students who passed the state tests last year compared to this year.

If schools meet state goals for closing the achievement gap, they get an "A" for the measure.

If they make partial progress towards that goal, they get partial credit--with one major exception: Schools that didn't have at least 30 students in a particular category last year, but do this year, get an "F" for that category if they didn't meet state goals--even if students made progress.

That means diverse schools in small and medium-sized school districts are more likely to face lower report card grades.

"I'm looking at significantly reduced report cards grades simply because I increased my population of subgroup students," Crouse, the Princeton associate superintendent, said.

Schools get a separate "annual measurable objectives" score for each group of students. Those scores are combined to calculate the school's overall grade for the measure. So again, the more diverse a school is, the less likely it is to earn an A for this measure.

Schools won't get a single overall grade from the state this year or next. But in 2015, this achievement gap measure will be averaged with grades in other areas to give schools overall grades.

Grade "F"

It's unclear exactly how many schools or districts risk getting F's for their work to close the achievement gap. But the Princeton school district, a 5,000-student district where about 60 percent of students are from low-income families, is definitely one of them, Crouse said.

The Ohio Department of Education won't publicly release school grades until later this week.

[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]“I think we’ve been straight up from the get go that this is a more rigorous report card...It’s going to show that some districts aren’t doing a good job in all areas."
--Ohio Department of Education spokesperson John Charlton[/module]

But an analysis of the most current Ohio Department of Education data available shows that if this report card system had been in place last year, more than 350 schools would have flunked this measure for at least one category of students if they failed to meet state goals. That's about 10 percent of schools statewide.

And earlier this year, the Ohio Department of Education grade simulations showed nearly 90 percent of schools in the state's largest urban districts and about 40 percent of schools statewide getting F's on this achievement gap-closing measure.

Ohio Department of Education spokesperson John Charlton said the new report card system is intended to be tougher than the old one.

"I think we've been straight up from the get go that this is a more rigorous report card," he said. "It's going to show that some district aren't doing a good job in all areas."

He pointed out that all school districts do have the chance to earn an "A" on the achievement gap measure--by fully meeting the state goal.

Tom Ash, governmental relations director for Ohio's school superintendents association, said any report card system is bound to have elements that seem to affect some districts more than others.

For affected districts, that can be a big deal.

"And now they'll have to add a caveat to the whole thing saying 'This doesn't take into account the improvements that were made,'" he said.

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