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Monday, March 12, 2012

New Report Card: State of State School Overrated

Apparently, Gov. John Kasich's choice of State of the State venue was overrated.

Kasich caused a tizzy when he chose to move the annual speech to Wells Academy in Steubenville, citing how it is doing great things despite budget challenges -- not so subtly suggesting that money doesn't matter as much to academic performance as commitment, vision and innovative adaptability to tough budget times.

However, Ohio's proposed waiver from No Child Left Behind contains a new Report Card system that State Superintendent Stan Heffner claims will give Ohioans a clearer indication of its schools' performance. And under that new system, Wells Academy goes from an A on the report card to a B.

Is this evaluation really more accurate? Or is it the result of a ham-handed evaluation tool that hurts schools like Wells Academy, which overcome demographic challenges to be considered great enough to host an important gubernatorial address?

The new Report Card is based largely on standardized tests, which are tremendously influenced by demographics. Under this new system, a building and district's ratings are even more dependant upon their demographics than the prior system, which was pretty well dependant upon demographics as well.

Note: According to an Excel regression analysis of ODE data on the new system at the district level, demographics (poverty, income, property valuation, teacher salaries, educational attainment levels, etc.) produce an R-squared value of .48 for the new system vs. an R-squared of .45 for the previous system. The closer to 1 (or -1), the stronger the correlation.

This could explain why Wells Academy now rates a B rather than an A because its demographics are not favorable. So if the evaluation system's more dependant on them, Wells will seem less successful under that evaluation. But is Wells, in fact, less successful than the Governor and nearly every other education observer in this state thought? And if the new system made a mistake on Wells, what about the other districts and buildings?

For the issue isn't just at Wells Academy. Of the 3,409 school buildings rated under the old system, more than 77 percent rate worse under the proposed system, according to ODE projections. And that's assuming that the Excellent with Distinction buildings under the old 5-point Report Card, which equates to an A+, would rate the same under the new 4-point system the department's assuming (which doesn't include A+, just an A). So it's probably an even higher percentage.

Only 40 buildings improve, which means that barely 1 percent of buildings were underrated by the old system. Meanwhile, more than three-quarters of buildings were overrated. Can that even be possible?

Meanwhile, more than 83 percent of school districts were overrated, while none, that's right, not a single Ohio school district was underrated by the previous system.

I hope folks ask a simple question: "Was the old system that off?"

Roosevelt Elementary in Springfield (right in my backyard here near Akron) was an "Effective" building under the old system, meaning it rated a B. Under the new system, it's an F. Three ISUS Charter Schools in Dayton were rated Excellent under the old system, an A. Under the new, they all get Ds.

Meanwhile, the only schools that actually improve under the new system are 40 schools that improve from Academic Emergency under the old system -- an F, to a D under the new system. No building improved more than one step. And no building rated above an F in the old system improves under the new system.

One would think if you were creating a more accurate system, there would be corrections in both directions, certainly not all in one direction.

Charter Schools' rating changes are interesting. While 83 percent of school districts saw their grade levels drop, only 55 percent of Charters saw them drop (perhaps because more of them rated poorly under the old system and had less room to drop). Meanwhile, 45 percent of Charters stayed the same or improved under the new Report Card, though improvement was relegated to previously failing charters.

One side effect of this is that fewer Charters would be up for closing under the new system, assuming the same standards that applied under the old report card are transferred to the new one.

The performance differences remain stark between Charters and Districts. Only 10 percent of Charters rate B or higher on the new system (nearly 3 in 4 rate D or F), with some of the better thought of Charters slipping from As or A+s under the old system to Bs in the current one, like Wells Academy did on the Traditional side.

Meanwhile, two-thirds of school districts rate B or better on the new report card, with about 10 percent rating D or F.

Despite these clear questions about the new Report Card's methodology, all I really care about is this question: Now what?

What's the state's plan to improve these schools, since the Ohio Constitution and State Supreme Court have found education to be a state responsibility in Ohio? Will cutting more money from the state budget help districts be more innovative? Can the improvement happen with the same amount the state's spending, just with better, more focused programming? Will local taxpayers have to tax themselves at higher rates so districts have the necessary resources to meet the tougher standards certain to come down from the state? Will districts be able to pass levies now when they are considered B and C districts rather than A and B districts?

These are just some of the many questions the state and districts now face.

Again, I would like to see a system that rates districts not so much on their proficiency rates, which are so heavily influence by demographics, but upon their relative success in overcoming those barriers. So, for example, a Performance Index score of 82 may be phenomenal in some districts, but in the wealthier ones, that would be a terrible score. So the district where 82 is great should have that score weighted to account for their greater challenges.

In other words, Wells Academy should take its rightful place as a source of pride for the community and state, not relegated to the above average. It's difficult to understand how one of the best schools in the state is now merely one of the good ones.

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