Butler County schools see lower grades on state report card

State urges perspective, aims for long-term goals.

Ohio school report cards came out Thursday with two takeaways — grades are lower statewide based on more challenging tests and higher standards, and state officials are urging educators and parents to keep the results in perspective.

“I’ve been telling people not to let the report cards define us, but rather let them inform us,” new State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria said. “We should define ourselves through a much more robust set of measures, but (the report card) still has valuable information that we should make use of.”

MORE: How did your school perform on state report card?

Several Butler County school districts saw their grades lowered. Billy Smith, superintendent of Fairfield City Schools, said the state’s annual changes have forced local school systems to “try and hit a moving target.”

“The results of our 2016 report card are not representative of the work and collaboration that takes place in our schools. For the last three years, there have been many changes in the world of education,” Smith told the Journal-News.

State officials acknowledge that’s true to some extent, and urged people not to compare a school’s performance index from last year to this year, because different tests were used.

Students took the OAA state tests in spring 2014, the PARCC tests in spring 2015 and the AIR state tests in spring 2016. The last two were more challenging, based on Common Core state standards.

Also, the easier OGT state tests are being phased out of report card calculations.

Additionally, the test benchmarks that schools must reach increased for this report card and are scheduled to increase next year as well.

“We have raised expectations for students to reflect what is necessary for them to be ready to succeed in a competitive, global economy where employers’ expectations are higher than ever,” state school board President Tom Gunlock said.

“This year’s report cards and the grades we’re seeing reflect a system in transition to these higher expectations for student learning,” he said.

DeMaria agreed, citing Georgetown University data linking higher educational attainment with better job prospects.

The new state report card does not give schools an overall grade. Instead it features letter grades on six components — academic achievement, year-over-year progress, gap closing among demographic subgroups, kindergarten to third-grade reading improvement, graduation rates, and a “prepared for success” measure for those graduates.

Schools’ response

Butler County superintendents gave failing marks to much of the state grading.

The highly regarded Lakota Local Schools saw uneven grades, notching an A in the year-over-year progress category but also receiving an F in gap closing and kindergarten to third-grade reading improvement.

Lakota officials pointed out the F in K-3 reading improvement is misleading, saying it measures only a tiny percentage of K-3 students struggling with reading while 99.4 percent of all third-graders have met the similar state-mandated third grade reading requirement.

“The complexity of the state report card means you can’t just read it like you might read your child’s report card,” said Acting Lakota Superintendent Robb Vogelmann. “The letter grades for each area only tell part of the story for how we’re ultimately preparing students for their future.”

Other major Butler County school systems fared similarly, registering mixed grades for the six components measured from the 2015-2016 school year.

Many superintendents pointed out that comparing this latest round of report card grading is problematic, if not impossible, because in many academic categories the tests, scoring and standards are different from last year’s measurements.

“The state report card is a misleading tool that does not reflect the quality of education at Hamilton City Schools,” Superintendent Tony Orr told the Journal-News.

“State testing is damaging to our students, teachers and economy, and it appears that it is designed to justify the existence of the Ohio Department of Education,” he said.

DeMaria acknowledged some of the complaints but also stressed that changes were made to move state-required testing and achievement measuring toward a more uniform, accurate assessment.

DeMaria, who took over as Ohio’s top school leader in June, said greater year-to-year consistency will be part of Ohio’s annual report cards in the coming years.

“You can’t compare the achievement measure to last year (and) people shouldn’t jump to conclusions,” DeMaria said earlier this week in a webcast to Ohio news media. “A child’s learning is more than what is tested. We shouldn’t let the report cards define us, but at the same time, these report cards should inform us. A takeaway from this is, we still have more work to do.”

Fairfield City Schools’ Lani Wildow, director of curriculum and instruction for the 10,000-student district, said “with hopes of stability in the state testing system, we will take time to dig in and analyze the testing data in a variety of ways, ensuring we are teaching and assessing at a rigorous level as well as helping students truly engage with the standards in a meaningful way.”

She highlighted two bright spots for Fairfield City Schools.

“Despite the difficulties of the (state) system, Fairfield continues to see success in two extremely important areas — growing students and graduating students,” she said, noting the district’s A’s in both year-over-year progress and graduation rates.

“We are confident that what we are doing in Fairfield is working,” Wildow said.

Big picture

State school board member A.J. Wagner said while schools and districts are given grades on the report card, it is the test performance of kids that is being measured, and that is influenced by things outside the schools.

“It’s measuring how well the students perform, and it can easily be interpreted to say it’s measuring poverty,” Wagner said, pointing to research linking the two. “It’s not like teachers are totally (helpless). They’re important. But in terms of overall impact, it still matters where you’re coming from.”

DeMaria pointed out that it’s normal for scores to go down when new tests are introduced.

“We’ve been through these transitions before, and we know that eventually we’ll do what we always do, which is see growth and improvement over time,” he said. “Students are capable of doing it, and our teachers and systems have what it takes to reach our goals.”

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