Thursday, August 22, 2013 at 2:43 PM
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Last year, about two-thirds of Ohio school districts got the equivalent of an A or A+ on their state report cards. This year, no district earned straight A's.
That's not because school performance changed dramatically. It's because Ohio introduced a new way of grading schools.
This new grading system gives schools A-F grades in nine separate areas instead of the labels ranging from "Excellent" to "Academic Emergency" under the old system. And under the new system, it's tougher for schools to earn high marks
The goal of the new system is to "create transparency and understanding," State Superintendent Richard Ross said in a call with reporters today.
"The overall descriptive rankings we've given schools and districts in the past are gone because in many cases those ratings concealed areas where schools were doing a poor job," he said. "We were simply not evaluating enough areas to clearly identify weaknesses."
Eventually, in 2015, schools will once again get overall grades.
But for now, schools will only get grades in nine individual categories that reflect student performance on standardized tests, student academic growth over the course of the year, graduation rates and progress towards closing the achievement gaps between different groups of students.
The absence of a single, overall grade may make it difficult for parents to understand how their schools are performing.
Wooster school district Superintendent Michael Tefs is a supporter of the new report cards. But even he says explaining them to his community won't be easy.
"There is no elevator speech for defining how your district did on the new local school report card," he said.
Under the new report cards, most districts got A's or B's in the areas measuring their overall performance on state tests.
[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]"There is no elevator speech for defining how your district did on the new local school report card."
--Wooster Superintendent Michael Tefs[/module]
But few districts got high marks for their work closing the achievement gap. About half of all districts got D's or F's in that area.
These report card grades determine if school districts are placed under state control and at which schools students are eligible to receive vouchers to attend private schools. They will also be used to determine which charter schools must be shut down for poor performance, though the Department of Education has not yet determined new closure criteria.
Looking at each district's full set of grades for Ohio's "Big 8" urban districts, only one--Toledo--got any grade higher than a C.
"The new state report card will show a significant performance drop from previous years," Cincinnati school district Superintendent Mary Ronan told WVXU. But "District-wide, when we compared our performance level to last year, it was pretty much the same."
That's largely because for the first time school districts got separate grades based on how subgroups of students perform.
For example, Hilliard, a suburban central Ohio district that earned the equivalent of an A+ last year, earned A's in just five out of nine areas this year.
Hilliard earned D's for its performance in closing the achievement gap and for its performance teaching gifted students a year's worth of knowledge in a year's time.
And the Lakota school district, in a Cincinnati-area suburb, got the equivalent of an A last year. This year, it earned A's in four our of nine areas. And it got a C for it's performance in closing the achievement gap.
That pattern holds true in many districts currently considered "high performing" across the state, Ross aid.
"That says something about the school district's effectiveness and it shows us that not every boy and girl in a district that is obtaining our highest rating is getting the education they deserve," Ross aid.
Last year, the Ohio Department of Education delayed the release of school report card grades because of state investigations into whether districts had improperly changed student data and improved their state report card grades.
This year, the department has warned that dozens of schools and districts could see changes in their report card grades pending the correction of data by local districts and the outcome of a state auditor's investigation.
But other than those changes, Department of Education officials say they are confident that the data and report card calculations are accurate.
"Our belief in our data is very, very strong," Ross aid. "We know it is accurate."
Less strong was the Department of Education's technical infrastructure.
This year, the department built a new website designed to present the new report cards in a more interactive manner. People reported they were unable to access the site throughout the day and into the evening.
In a written statement, the department said the site had been "overwhelmed by traffic."