Districts in Poverty Have Lowest Report Card Grades, New Federal Law Aims to Track Progress

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by Michelle Faust

When report cards came out recently, it was not without controversy.

Districts did worse than last year because the tests and the expectations changed. It was harder to get a passing grade.

“But the report card is important. It tells us useful information and we can't just ignore it in this state,” says Howard Fleeter, an economist who consults for the non-profit Ohio Education Policy Institute. “As we raise the bar, we're increasing the challenge disproportionately for districts that are struggling the most.”

Fleeter has examined the relationship between how well students do and their economic status.

Looking at a recent analysis of report card data: the schools with the lowest scores have the highest rates of poverty. Districts with more than 80 percent of the students living in poverty have the lowest scores. The highest performing schools have less than 10 percent of their student body living in poverty.

This trend holds no matter where you live in the state: in both rural and urban districts.

“Regardless of where they live just looking at these kids and how they do an individual task when you look at that data you see the same schism,” says Fleeter.

Educators are aware of the problems poor students face: challenges like getting to school regularly, getting enough to eat, making it to the doctor’s office.

Superintendent Dan Good says the Columbus City School District has partnered with several organizations to make sure his kids get the services they need.

“We provide a free breakfast and lunch for every student, whether they would qualify or not but keeping in mind 89 percent of our students would qualify,” Good explains.

Many of the districts with the poorest students are adding ‘wraparound services’—programs to connect kids with their needs for food, mental health services, and transportation.

But these things don’t show up on the school report cards, much to the dismay of Erin Gadd, spokesperson for the Lorain City School District.

Since the district is under the watch of an Academic Distress Commission, their poor scores mean Lorain stands to be taken over by the state.

“I think everyone can agree that academics is just one aspect of education. We’re more than our test scores; we are our people,” says Gadd.

By their own measures, Lorain’s schools have improved. But those test scores aren’t the same as the ones used by the Ohio Department of Education.

The federal government wants Ohio to come up with a plan that addresses the needs of the most vulnerable student populations. Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), schools must specifically track the progress of low-income students, students of color, English Language Learners, and students with disabilities.

In his recent state of the schools’ address, Eric Gordon, CEO of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, said the federal law that replaces No Child Left Behind will have the biggest impact on Ohio’s inner city schools.

“Everyone in this room needs to care about ESSA far more than they may have cared about No Child Left Behind which looked at every school similarly, because we're defining the next 15 years the generation of children based on what we will do for poor and minority children,” said Gordon who went on to say he will lobby both at the national and the state levels to ensure the plan being written this year is favorable to the kids in his district.

Scott DiMauro, Vice President of the Ohio Education Association, says plans to improve schools can’t come from the top down.

“So you’ve got to start by talking to the people that actually know the students and know the circumstance,” says DiMauro.

Ohio is taking public input on its ESSA plan for the next few months.

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