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Northeast Ohio schools show some recovery from pandemic in annual state report cards

Closeup of a desk in a classroom with a large chalkboard
This is the first year the Ohio Department of Education has rated schools on a five-star scale, which represents an adjustment from previous years’ A-through-F score.

Schools across Northeast Ohio are seeing improved marks on key indicators of academic performance as pandemic-related school closures recede into the past, according to the Ohio Department of Education’s new report cards released Thursday.

The two biggest districts in the region, Cleveland and Akron, both saw improvements in spring test scores this year compared to 2021. But both still earned low marks – one star out of five in the state’s new scoring method – for graduation rates and early literacy, although those measures both have improved since the pandemic hit.

Many other urban school districts across Ohio - and in Northeast Ohio - that work with high populations of impoverished students similarly scored low on these marks, but did see some improvement compared to the 2020-2021 year when many schools were remote-only.

The pandemic overall has not helped schools, said Cleveland Metropolitan School District CEO Eric Gordon.

Curious about how your school district scored? Check out the Ohio Department of Education's school district report cards here.

“We learn to read first by watching people make language happen,” he said. “And we’ve been watching masks for two years so we’re not surprised by that.”

In more positive news, CMSD scored four out of five stars on the “progress” standard, which measures academic performance against the state’s expectations, said Gordon.

He said CMSD has had a good track record of improving graduation rates over the last 11 years, posting a new record year-in and year-out during that time period, so he was confident progress can be made. The graduation rate dipped to 74.3% in 2021 from 81% in 2020; Akron fares a little better, at 81.5%, just under a two-star rating, down from 82.6% in 2020.

Akron met state standards for “gap closing” – a measure of how well the school district is closing gaps for specific groups of students like minorities or students with disabilities – while CMSD earned four out of five stars on that mark, with the highest growth among Black and economically disadvantaged students. Gordon said CMSD scored the highest of any of the eight major urban school districts in Ohio on that front.

Low report card scores for urban schools across the state, he said, show the level of challenge students and their families face.

“They do certainly measure poverty and other social determinants more effectively than they are teacher impact,” he said. “…but what this shows us is what happens in the classroom matters. So having a four-star rating in gap closing and a four-star rating in progress shows that while our kids don’t start at the same point as some of their peers, we are catching them up.”

Tamea R. Caver, chief academic officer and assistant superintendent at Akron Public Schools, says her district is similarly pulling itself out of the doldrums of the pandemic while trying to improve the quality of education students receive.

“We do have to tend to scholars not only academically, but also when it comes to their overall well-being,” she said.

Statewide, an Ohio Department of Education assessment of students’ spring test scores shows a major increase in English and math proficiency in 2021-2022 over 2020-2021, but, across all student groups on average, those proficiency levels are still below pre-pandemic levels. And they’re particularly low for English language learners and students with disabilities.

School districts in higher-income, majority-white suburban cities like Solon and Hudson posted far better ratings on all measures in the report cards, with five- or four-star ratings across the board. But even those schools showed a slight dip in performance during the early days of the pandemic, and some recovery since.

The Fordham Institute, an ideologically conservative education policy nonprofit, said in a press release that many of Ohio’s “Big 8” urban school districts posted high scores in the “progress” rating on the report card, but low marks on the proficiency-based “achievement” rating.

“Because the Progress rating looks at students’ growth over time (no matter their starting point) high-poverty schools can and do post solid ratings on this measure,” the release reads. “Meanwhile, reflecting longstanding achievement gaps and the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on Ohio’s urban students, the vast majority of Big Eight schools struggled on the proficiency-based Achievement component.”

This is the first year the Ohio Department of Education has rated schools on a five-star scale, which represents an adjustment from previous years’ A-through-F score. On the new scale, a three-star rating on any metric indicates that a district is meeting expectations, while any score below indicates a district is not.

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.