If, as many argue, the devil is in the details, then the revised and expanded 2012-13 state report cards for school districts in Ohio dish out a satisfying smorgasbord of devilishly delicious data for parents, teachers, school administrators and policymakers to consume.
The value of those heaping helpings of information, however, is offset by the greater complexity of this year’s report cards and the strong but misguided temptation to glean from them apple-for-apple comparisons with previous years’ results. Unfortunately, until they are fully revised several years from now, Ohio’s state report cards cannot be used to gauge the year-over-year ups and downs in student achievement and schools’ overall academic standings.
With that caveat understood, however, most Mahoning Valley parents and education professionals can take pride in the largely positive grades they received in most of the nine key components the report cards covering 2012-13. (The most notable exception to that generalization, of course, remains the Youngs-town City Schools, about which we commented at length Sunday on this page. The district’s continued lack of significant academic progress remains troubling).
MOST VALLEY SCHOOLS FARE WELL
As noted in a chart on The Vindicator’s front page Friday, the overwhelming majority — 36 of 45 Valley districts — received a B grade in the Performance Index, one key indicator that measures the achievement of every student during the 2012-13 school year. Maplewood Local Schools in Trumbull County stood out as the only district to receive the excellent grade of A, the underperforming urban districts of Youngstown and Warren both received D’s while East Palestine, East Liverpool, Campbell, Sebring, Niles and Brookfield schools all received C’s.
At first glance, some will be tempted to interpret those results as an overall decline in academic performance of many districts in the region since the previous school year. After all, just last year, more than a dozen Valley school districts received “excellent with distinction” or “excellent” overall composite ratings, which many understandably interpret as letter-A grades. Again, however, such comparisons logically cannot be made this year. No composite overall grade for school districts will be awarded again until 2015, when the yearly phased-in revisions to the grading system will be complete.
Nonetheless, this year’s report cards do provide a warehouse of information for school districts and their residents to use to better understand the strengths and weaknesses in specific targeted areas, including academics, special-education programs and student retention. Many rightly criticized the previous system of ratings as vague and guilty of producing too much grade inflation. Too many districts received “excellent” or “excellent with distinction” ratings that masked seemingly small but tangible weaknesses in school operations.
GRADING CLARITY IMPROVED
Clarity stands out as another strength of the new report cards. As Boardman Local Schools Superintendent Frank Lazzeri remarked last week after his district’s results were released, “I think the intention of the ODE [Ohio Department of Education] is a good one. They want parents to better understand how their schools are doing. The other designations were difficult for people to understand. Everyone understands A, B, C, D and F. It’s a step in the right direction in terms of understanding the data.”
Beyond understanding the data, teachers, administrators and parents also must use the data in preparing for the start of the 2013-14 academic year.
School officials can start by looking at their lowest grades. In Austintown, for example, emphasis could be placed on improving programs for gifted and disabled children, the grades for which were F and D, respectively. Poland schools might consider targeting underperforming students, as that district received a D for service to its students scoring in the lowest 20 percent based on standardized state tests. Campbell Memorial High School officials would be wise to brainstorm on improving their four-year graduation rate, a category for which they received a D.
But as State Superintendent of Schools Richard Ross points out, the new report-card system is not designed to be a “gotcha” embarrassment for districts. Rather, the new criteria succeed in pointing out specific areas for focus as the state wisely moves toward new and higher expectations.
Raising the bar on Ohio’s educational standards stands out as one of the greatest assets of the new grading system. State education leaders deserve an A for effort in constructing and implementing the revised methodology. The new and tougher evaluation procedures hold great promise toward implementing meaningful improvements in Ohio’s public schools and in producing better and brighter crops of high school graduates.