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Ohio’s Gifted Accountability System: Good Start, But We Aren’t There Yet

September 2, 2016

As someone who is as knowledgeable about Ohio’s accountability measures for gifted students as anyone, I was simultaneously proud and frustrated while reading the Fordham Foundation’s latest report, High Stakes for High Achievers.  To be clear, I am grateful to have been part of the discussions and policy development leading to some groundbreaking new accountability measures for gifted students in the state of Ohio. The Ohio Association for Gifted Children has worked on moving the state toward breaking out gifted performance since 2009. In fact, Ohio’s gifted performance indicator is one of very few elements of the Strickland administration’s education overhaul that survived the Kasich administration’s education overhaul.  (I can’t wait until the next governor’s education overhaul…) And, in the absence of a mandate for gifted services, it is, frankly, better than what we had before for gifted students, which was nothing.

But as soon as the Fordham report dropped, a parent on an Ohio gifted forum asked, “Apparently, Fordham Institute thinks that Ohio is the best.  Should I feel sorry for the other states?” It is easy to understand the frustration of this parent. After all, even as Ohio earns three stars from Fordham in the report, the vast majority of gifted students in Ohio remain unserved. Even worse, if you are a minority or economically disadvantaged gifted student, you are less likely to be served than your non-minority or non-economically disadvantaged peers and much less likely to even be identified. (Please see the State of Gifted in Ohio report for more details.) So how do we account for Fordham’s enthusiasm for what Ohio is doing, and the ugly reality of what is not happening for gifted students in Ohio? And, more importantly, how do move the needle for these students in a state that is increasingly moving toward fewer regulations?

What Fordham Sees and What it Misses:  Like so many think tank reports, Fordham’s take on high achieving accountability is a snapshot taken from a 30,000 foot view.  The focus of the report is solely on output measures that apply to all students and neglects any other gifted education policy at the individual state level. It is terrific that Ohio has incorporated several measures on district report cards designed to support gifted students. But the reality is that districts are still not mandated to serve gifted students, and the vast majority of districts do not. This is not accounted for in the Fordham report. The exclusion of such things as service mandates, appropriately trained gifted instructors, and other valuable inputs is a problem.  The other glaring issue is really the question of what happens if districts fail to measure up on the gifted performance standards. In Ohio, the answer is clear: not a darn thing.  Accountability without repercussion for lack of progress typically means little change at the local level. What we have found in Ohio is that wealthier, suburban districts along with some of the major urban districts have responded to the gifted performance indicator, while smaller, rural, and poorer districts have done little. In fact, as a typology group, gifted students in the poorest rural districts have actually done worse each year in terms of value-added growth.

Another issue with Ohio’s accountability system for gifted students is the shortfall of the measuring stick: state assessments. Without the ability to measure above-grade level achievement and growth, it is difficult to know how well Ohio’s gifted students are truly doing.  These assessments still largely only measure math and reading achievement in limited grade bands. Also, while there are gifted measures on the district report card, they represent a very small part of how a district is measured.  For many districts, it is often easier to ignore the population than address the problem.

What Should We Do to Improve the System?  Going into the third year of the gifted performance indicator and gifted value-added sub-group measure, there are some changes that definitely would help to match Fordham’s three-star rating of Ohio’s gifted report card measures with the typical experience in Ohio’s classrooms for a gifted child. While, there are lists of changes that are needed, here are the big game changers: First, gifted services in Ohio’s districts should not be optional. Every student should be able to learn and grow in Ohio’s classrooms. Second, the Ohio State Board of Education should pass gifted operating standards that are rigorous, especially with regard to what constitutes true gifted services and appropriately trained gifted staff.  Third, the gifted performance indicator, when revised, should have increased emphasis on properly identifying and providing services to the most vulnerable of our gifted students in Ohio. Fourth, Ohio should move to adaptive state assessments as soon as it is feasible.  And finally, Ohio gifted students need to have alternatives if they reside in districts that do not provide adequate opportunities for their gifted students year after year after year. There needs to be some repercussions for districts chronically failing this population.

Please don’t get me wrong. I am very appreciative of Fordham’s latest report.  Since the days of No Child Left Behind, state accountability systems across the country have done little to push districts to support the needs of gifted students.  This report shines a big, bright light on this issue. But I would hate for any Ohio policymaker to think Ohio’s three stars in this report mean that Ohio is doing a good job in educating gifted students.  The bottom line is that it is a good start for Ohio to have accountability measures for gifted students on the report card.  But the measures are iffy at best as they are still all grade level, they fail to account for adequate services provided to gifted students (a.k.a. input measures), and there is little consequence if districts don’t measure up. So, congratulations to Ohio for being a leader. Now let’s get to work to actually make Ohio a better place for a gifted student to learn.

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