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Grading on a Curve: The Illusion of Excellence in Ohio’s Schools

November 14, 2011

Three years ago, I sat in a Senate Finance committee hearing where a number of superintendents spoke of the need to eliminate spending requirements for excellent-rated school districts. Their logic was simple: Excellent districts are doing a great job, and they do not need the state to tell them how to spend their money. Just give them funding and step aside to let them do their high-performing work. Of course, the first thing I knew that would be cut if spending requirements were eliminated would be gifted education. So, with that motivation, I decided to take a look at just how excellent these districts were. I was frankly a little shocked by what I saw when I delved into the data. I continued to do the analysis annually and provided key policymakers with the statistics, but while many were appalled at what they saw, nothing happened.

This year, at the urging of many individuals, I took the analysis a step further. With the help of my colleague, Colleen Grady, we put together a report that looks not just at excellent school districts, but the accountability system as a whole. We wanted to answer the following questions: How accurate are the annual school and district ratings handed out by the Ohio Department of Education? Does the level of student performance in Ohio warrant a quadrupling of the number of districts in the excellent category over the past decade? Are highly rated districts meeting world-class levels of performance?

Our report “Grading on a Curve: The Illusion of Excellence in Ohio’s Schools,” finds that actual educational excellence may be far more elusive than our ratings would lead us to believe.

Some of the report’s findings are sobering:
• 67 districts rated excellent or excellent with distinction had zero students take AP exams.
• 109 districts rated excellent or excellent with distinction had average ACT scores below the state average.
• 160 districts rated excellent or excellent with distinction had fewer than 20% of their graduating class receive diplomas with honors.
• 136 districts rated excellent or excellent with distinction had college remediation rates above the state average.
• 220 districts rated excellent or excellent with distinction serve fewer than 20% of their identified gifted students with 85 of the highly rated districts reporting no gifted services at all.

It would be easy to dismiss this report as just another assault on public school districts. But that truly is not the intent of the report. Ohio’s accountability system is deeply flawed. It really does a disservice to policymakers, the public at large, and of course, students, when we pretend that the majority of our districts are doing a stellar job when in many cases it just isn’t true. Gifted services are being reduced at a record pace. Part of the reason is funding, of course. But services have been dwindling for a number of years. I am convinced that one of the main reasons for the decline is an accountability system that includes perverse disincentives to districts when it comes to serving gifted students.

Briefly, the report recommendations include the following:

• Incorporate high quality metrics such as college remediation rates, ACT/SAT scores, Advanced Placement performance and graduates qualifying for Honors Diplomas.
• Move to nationally normed or internationally benchmarked high school assessments such as the ACT or SAT.
• Eliminate the labeling of districts until a meaningful system can be developed.
• Incorporate an automatic trigger to increase cut scores as more districts receive higher ratings.
• Reevaluate how the value-added growth measure is used and provide results by performance quintile.
• Eliminate multiple pathways to ratings in favor of a single pathway with multiple components.

I hope you will all take the time to read the report. To download a copy, please go to the following link: http://www.oagc.com/files/OAGC_Grading_On_A_Curve_Final.pdf . I will be the first to admit, it is not a fun read. But hopefully, it will cast a light on a problem that has been hidden too long.

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