Bellwether Gives Ohio High ESSA Plan Review

The Ohio Department of Education. (Ashton Marra/ideastream)
The Ohio Department of Education. (Ashton Marra/ideastream)

The Ohio Department of Education is awaiting approval of its education accountability plan required under ESSA, the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, but while the state waits for the government’s response, a national education advocacy group says Ohio’s plan is strong.

Bellwether Education Partners is a nonprofit that does research and analysis of education policy, with a focus on improving achievement for low income students. The group reviewed each of the 50 state ESSA plans submitted in April and September.

Ohio scores a 3 or 4 out of 5 in almost every category reviewed by Bellwether, including its supports for low-performing schools, clear academic goals, and measurements of the long-term performance of student subgroups, like minority or low-income children.

But Bellwether Principle Chad Aldeman said it’s Ohio’s focus on getting kids to read on level by the third grade that other states should take a good look at.

“School doesn’t start in third grade, and yet often our accountability systems do,” he said. “So, it makes sense to start looking at what’s actually happening in Kindergarten through third grade. Are students developing fundamental reading skills in those early years?”

The early literacy standards in Ohio’s ESSA plan are based on a 2012 state law that focuses on grade level reading attainment and requires third graders pass a reading exam before they can advance.

The K-3 reading standards aren’t the only positive in the plan, though, according to Aldeman. He said the state law that creates Academic Distress Commissions in low-performing school districts, the provisions of which are detailed in Ohio’s ESSA plan, is something his team’s review also noted as a positive.

“Our experts saw that sort of activity as a good thing, as a way for the state to say school districts are creatures of the state and when they are very low performing, the state has a role to play,” he said.

Both Youngstown and Lorain City Schools currently have ADCs that are appointed by state and local leaders to overhaul their struggling school systems.

The Youngstown Board of Education, though, is suing the state over the constitutionality of the takeover law. Aldeman said he has no opinion on its constitutionality, but that some form of intervention is a strength.

As for weaknesses, Aldeman pointed to the complex nature of the state’s performance measures, most of which are also contained on state school report cards. Adleman said while the detailed measures are necessary for tracking academic performance, the sheer volume of measures included in reports to parents can make it complicated to use the information.

The criticism has been contained in a number of other state and national reviews of Ohio’s school report cards. Aldeman suggested working directly with parents and educators to reduce the data to just the measures they believe they need.

“There’s no exact sweet spot for how many measures to include or how to include them, but there’s growing evidence in the research and social sciences about choice architecture and people get overwhelmed with too much information,” he said. “So, work with parents, work with educators to say what information do you really need? What will [help] you make decisions?”

Simplifying the school report cards is something House Education and Career Readiness Committee Chair Andrew Brenner anticipates taking on in 2018.

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