Low Grades on State Report Cards Mean Challenges for Urban School Districts

Superintendent of Akron Public Schools David James. (Urycki/ideastream)
Superintendent of Akron Public Schools David James. (Urycki/ideastream)
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If David James could pick just one word to describe the Akron City School District, it’s “growing.”

“We’re growing academically,” he said. “There are a lot of things we’re putting into place, really trying to change the face of education and how we engage our kids. So, we’re in an exciting period of growth.”

James made the assessment of the school district he leads just hours after the Ohio Department of Education released the 2016-2017 academic year report cards for the state’s 608 school districts.

The report card showed Akron schools are largely, in a word, failing. The district received an F grade in metrics that measure performance on state tests, the progress students are making from year to year, its 4 and 5-year graduation rates, and its ability to close the achievement gap between groups of students based on income, race, or disability.

“No one’s happy when you look at the number of indicators met,” James said, but he pointed to one bright spot in the data: K-3rd grade literacy rates.

There, Akron City Schools received a C, which means it met the previous year’s state average score for the metric.

Akron is just one of many urban school districts that appear to be struggling based on the state report card outcomes. Cleveland Metropolitan School District also received an F in every major graded metric except the K- 3rd grade literacy rates, where, much like Akron, the district received a C.

CMSD CEO Eric Gordon said he’s disappointed in the overall grades his district received.

“We have a long way to go. No one here is celebrating,” he said, adding the district is, however, pleased with the progress it made in some areas, including the graduation rate which was up by 4% in the district last year.

“We started tackling this five years ago. We were at 52% and we were 24.5% behind the highest urban district. Today we are 4% behind the highest urban district,” Gordon said. “So, we’ve really closed that gap and have continued to be able to move that needle.”

Overall, Ohio’s Superintendent Paolo DeMaria said Thursday that schools are improving as they adjust to the higher standards the report cards measure.

Those higher standards were put in place, initially, in 2012 with the passage of legislation that put the A through F grade system in place. It has taken several years to fully implement those changes, though.

This year, for the first time, parents have two years of identical data to compare since a new standardized test was implemented in 2016.

Researchers at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an Ohio education policy think tank, say having a span of data will make the grades more reliable for parents, but they remarked it can be difficult to decide which of those indicators to prioritize.

Fordham’s Ohio Research Director Aaron Churchill encouraged parents to pay attention to one measure in particular: value-added measures.

They track student academic growth from year to year based on test results.

“The value-added measure is the best indicator for a school’s effectiveness,” Churchill said. “It is sort of a trending perspective on how schools are doing, sort of like you see in the stock market prices every day.”

“[The stock market] could go up one day and down the next, but if you look at it over a long term perspective, you kind of get a sense of what the economy is doing,” he said. “You get the same sense with the value-added measure when it comes to school effectiveness [over time].”

The grades themselves are a way for parents, educators, and community members to check in on the progress of their local school district, Senior Executive Director for Accountability at the Ohio Department of Education Chris Woolard said. But poor grades also come with consequences, under both state and federal law.

Those consequences, Woolard said, could be a variety of things, including what is essentially the state takeover of a school system. That process includes the appointment of an Academic Distress Commission and the hiring of a schools CEO to oversee almost all district functions.

Currently two Ohio school districts have such a governance structure, Lorain and Youngstown, but Woolard said this year’s scores will not result in the changeover process for any one district.

“There are not going to be any new Academic Distress Commissions created in the immediate, short term based on this report card,” he said, “but performance this year could be part of that three years of poor performance that might eventually lead to one.”

Woolard said the 2016-2017 report cards could count as either strike one or strike two against a district after the baseline measurements used in the grading system were reset during the 2015-2016 school year.

Akron Superintendent James said his district, much like all of the Big Eight urban school districts in Ohio, is struggling, but will continue to push toward growth.

It can be a struggle to motivate teachers and principals when district grades are poor, James said, but he will continue to promote the use of programs that, so far, are proving to grow academic achievement.

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