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State report card — Schools react to assessment

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By Carol Simmons

A lot of information appears to be packed into the Ohio Department of Education’s 2016–17 school report card released earlier this fall, but Yellow Springs district leaders don’t see much in the results that is of use to local schools.

With grades in six assessment categories ranging from an “A” for graduation numbers to a “D” for progress in closing scoring gaps among certain student populations, Yellow Springs received “B”s for K–3 literacy and student preparedness and  “C”s in achievement and overall progress.

Yellow Springs School Board member Steve Conn dismissed the significance of the results. The state report card “doesn’t mean anything,” Conn said during the board’s regular meeting in October. “It doesn’t provide any information that’s useful.”

Yellow Springs Superintendent Mario Basora seems to agree, describing the state-mandated tests on which the report cards are primarily based as “invalid and unreliable” in an email this week.

As a consequence of the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, Ohio implemented a statewide “educational accountability system” in 2003. Based on proficiency tests and other measures, such as absenteeism and graduation rates, the initial “report cards” ascribed one of five descriptive designations ranging from “Excellent” to “Academic Emergency.” Those ratings have in recent years evolved to the current system of assigning “A” through “F” grades in six assessment categories. 

Contrary to local sentiment, the annual measures serve an important function, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Education, or ODE, said in a recent phone call.

“The realities of the future demand that Ohio set high expectations for what students should know and be able to do by the time they graduate from high school,” Brittany Haplin, the ODE’s associate director for media relations, wrote in a follow-up email.

“The obligation of the education system is to work diligently to help students reach those expectations,” and the yearly report card is a tool for determining whether that obligation is being met, according to the ODE.

While the grades represent a way for communities to see how well their public schools meet state requirements, they also give the state a means for responding when districts flounder. Three years of failing grades can lead to what is basically a state takeover, which includes the formation of an Academic Distress Commission to make district decisions. 

Mixed local results

Based on the state’s benchmarks, the Yellow Springs School District had mixed success for the 2016–17 school year.

Earning an “A” for its 100 percent graduation rate, one of the few districts in the state to  see all its seniors earn a diploma two years in a row, Yellow Springs also received a “D” for its yearly progress in closing the scoring gaps for student groupings based on race, ethnicity, disability and family income.

One of the most media-cited categories is that of “achievement,” which uses a weighted formula to calculate overall test scores according to students’ levels of success. Yellow Springs earned a 77.8 percent, or a “C,” for its latest testing performance. 

A complete performance ranking of Ohio’s 608 districts is not yet available for the 2016–17 school year, but according to Superintendent Mario Basora, 80 percent of the state’s districts received an “F” for the 25 performance indicators that go into computing the achievement grade, and “90 percent got a ‘D’ or ‘F.’”

Students needed to score an 80 percent or higher to pass their respective grade-level subject tests, most of which were administered last spring. The year before, the passing mark was 75 percent.

For Basora, the failing performance grades across the state don’t indicate a problem with Ohio schools. Rather, the problem lies in the testing measures. 

Moving goalposts

The frequency with which the state revises its tests and standards is frustrating, Basora said earlier this school year. “The goalposts have continually moved,” he recently reiterated. Raising what constitutes a passing score from one year to the next is one example of ever changing criteria, he noted.

In nearby Cedarville, Cedar Cliff School District Superintendent Chad Mason agrees.

“It’s hard to find anything useful when they change the test all the time,” Mason said in a recent phone interview.

With an enrollment of slightly more than 600 students, compared with Yellow Springs’ school population of nearly 750, Cedar Cliff’s latest report card grades are similar to Yellow Springs’, notwithstanding a slightly higher performance rating of 81.5 percent.

“I have been pretty outspoken [against] both standardized testing and the report card,” Mason said. “I’m asked how much benefit there is, and I answer, ‘None!’”

Noting Cedarville’s politically conservative reputation and Yellow Springs’ more liberal bent, Mason said that both school districts are allied in their criticisms of the state’s system of standardized testing. He added that he would like state lawmakers to hear the two districts’ united opposition and adopt new legislation that relieves testing burdens.

State action

A few legislators appear to be noticing areas of possible improvement. Ohio Sen. Matt Huffman (R), of Lima, recently introduced a bill — Senate Bill 216 — that includes several provisions that would alleviate some of the evaluation pressures. One proposal would increase from 10 to 30 the minimum number of students in a group for student performance data to be reported. The change could make a big difference in grades for small districts such as Yellow Springs and Cedar Cliff, where one or two students can significantly affect percentages. 

ODE spokeswoman Haplin said that the report cards are meant to be a tool for schools to see “where they’re doing well and where improvement is needed.” The resulting self-assessment is perhaps the most important piece of the process. “As we’ve seen happen over time, schools and districts, as well as policymakers, use the report cards to support ongoing discussions about school performance and to make well-informed decisions about teaching.”

That’s the approach Oakwood City School leaders say they take. Consistently at the top of state educational rankings and often held up in comparison to Yellow Springs’ educational efforts, Oakwood received “As” and “Bs” across the six graded categories this year.

“We use the information to look for both strong and weak trends in mastery of the standards,” Kimbe Lange, Oakwood’s director of curriculum, instruction and assessment, wrote in a recent email. “Once we have identified areas of weakness, we concentrate on those standards and set data goals in those areas.”

At the same time, Oakwood’s superintendent, Kyle Ramey,  said that while this year’s report card results were “gratifying,” the “numbers do not tell the whole Oakwood story.”

For its part, the ODE agrees. “Remember, report cards are just one element of what is happening in a district or school, Haplin wrote in her email. “To get a fuller picture, we encourage people to visit schools and talk to teachers, administrators, parents and students.”

Other markers

In addition to graduation rate, gap closing and achievement, the three other categories on the current report cards are in the areas of “progress,” “K–3 literacy improvement” and “prepared for success.”

Progress, often referred to as “value added,” attempts to measure students’ academic growth based on past test performance. The district received a “C” for the category, with “Cs” in each of the sub-components for students identified as gifted, those in the lowest 20 percent of achievement and students with disabilities, and a “D” for the progress of fourth- through eighth-grade students in math, English/language arts, science and social studies.

Basora noted that the eighth-grade math results do not include nearly half of the class, who were taking advanced math and required to take the ninth-grade test instead. “Consequently, 25 of our top eighth-grade math students’ scores were not included in the eight-grade math data,” he wrote. “When you take all of those kids out, we are left with only 29 students represented.”

The K–3 literacy improvement component “looks at how successful the school is at getting struggling readers on track  to proficiency in third grade and beyond,” according to the ODE website. The district received a “B” grade, with 100 percent of third-graders meeting the Third Grade Reading Guarantee requirements for promotion to fourth grade; and 87.9 percent of third-graders scoring a proficient score or higher on the state reading test.

The district also received a “B” in the “prepared for success” component, which looks at how ready students are for taking advantage of future academic and career opportunities. The measure takes into account the number of students   completing the SAT and ACT pre-college tests, participating in advanced placement classes and earning honors and/or industry-recognized credentials.

Despite the rise this year in what constitutes a passing test score, Yellow Springs’ grades show improvement over last year’s results in the areas of gap closing and K–3 literacy improvement, both of which earned an “F” in 2016, while other category grades remained the same.

Alternative assessments

Superintendent Basora remains staunchly critical of the assessments. The main problem is that they are based  primarily on the results of standardized testing, which Basora described as “archaic” during last month’s school board meeting.

He pointed to the district’s recently released Quality Profile report in which administrators’ thoughts on state testing are publicly laid out.

“It is our belief that Ohio’s standardized tests do not represent current best practice and continue to rely on an antiquated assessment model that focuses on rote memorization and regurgitation of information instead of deeper learning and the socio-emotional skills needed for success beyond high school,” the report states.

“In Yellow Springs, we are focused on whole child learning,” rather than state test results, Basora said in an email. “This includes not only reading and math growth, but also an equal emphasis on socio-emotional skills that are essential to future success.”

For assessing students’ academic growth in reading and math, Basora said the district prefers the STAR assessment model, which he characterized as “a much more valid and reliable measure of student growth and progress over time.”

Created by Renaissance Learning Inc., STAR, originally an acronym for Standardized Testing Assessment of Reading,  are short tests that are computer adaptive in that they adjust to each answer a student provides, according to the Renaissance website.

“Unlike state standardized tests that have changed testing companies, metrics, and cut scores with each passing season, STAR has stood the test of time and uses consistent standards, benchmarks, and rigor to measure results. So we can accurately measure our progress over time,” Basora wrote. 

He said that STAR results from the 2016-17 school year show a growth of 1.2 years in reading and 1.3 years in math for all Mills Lawn students over the course of a year.

“The average student nationally would grow one year, while our students have surpassed those expectations and grown at higher rates,” he said.

Nevertheless, “despite significant concerns” about the state report cards, Basora said the district does “consider and read the results each year.”

Foremost, “in Yellow Springs we intentionally don’t let state testing drive how teachers teach and students learn, because we believe in teaching the whole child and the value of learning by doing and experiencing, not just learning by filling in bubbles on a timed test.”

Basora said the 2016–17 report card is on the agenda for the next school board meeting, Thursday, Nov. 9, at Mills Lawn School. The meeting is scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. with an executive session, before moving into the public portion of district business. 

For a copy of the district’s Quality Profile, go online to For more information on the 2017 Ohio School Report Card, go to


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