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Report cards: Ohio schools get controversial A-F labels Thursday

For the first time in six years, each Ohio school and district will receive an overall A-F grade when state report cards are released Thursday. The state school board and some state legislators pushed to kill that system this spring, but the legislation did not advance to a vote.

LAST YEAR: How did your district fare on the 2016-17 report card?

The overall A-F grades — the first since “excellent,” “continuous improvement” and other labels were phased out after 2011-12 — are meant to sum up test performance, student growth, graduation rates and more, both for high-performing schools and those that have struggled.

The annual report card is a key marker for all Ohio schools, offering a wide range of data — raw test performance, student growth from year to year, graduation rates and high school success, early-grade literacy, plus how well subgroups of students by race, socioeconomics and disability are closing academic gaps.

There’s still disagreement over whether the overall grade is a good idea. Some, including Gov. John Kasich, have said the state report card has been too complicated, and giving the simple overall grade is easier for parents to understand.

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Opponents of the overall grade have two primary arguments.

MORE: Area school officials urged broader look at school districts beyond state report cards

One is that the state tests that are the basis of the report card don’t accurately measure school quality. Test results have consistently mirrored poverty data — students in low-income communities tend to score lower, but more of those students also were academically behind as 5-year-olds before the school ever worked with them.

“I see the report card system as a very valuable tool, but it has flaws,” said state school board member Nick Owens. “I am concerned that the overall composite score won’t be a fair reflection of what’s actually happening in our schools and districts.”

Traditionally, local high-income communities such as Lakota, Mason and Kings and others have seen their schools graded high based on student test scores, while generally low-income communities such as Middletown, Hamilton and New Miami have been graded lower.

RELATED: Two state tests eliminated for Ohio students

The other argument is that sticking a single label on each school will cause people to gloss over the detailed information in the report card that might give residents a more nuanced view of their schools — percentage of students who take advanced coursework, which subjects and grade levels made the most progress, teacher attendance rate and more.

The Fordham Institute released a detailed report supporting an overall grade, but calling for a formula that puts more weight on year-over-year student growth, saying that would be fairer to schools where more students start off behind.

“They reflect too strongly the backgrounds of students rather than the effectiveness of their schools,” said Aaron Churchill, Fordham’s Ohio Research director.

MORE: State report card needs changes, education groups say

The Ohio Department of Education says the report card is intended to give parents and others information “to celebrate success and identify areas for improvement,” triggering local conversations on strengths and weaknesses, as well as intensive state support for the schools that struggle the most.

But state officials acknowledge in their report card guide that “report cards are only one part of the story,” encouraging parents to visit schools, and encouraging schools to attach their own “quality profile” documents to the state’s report card.

“We need to judge our schools fairly, and we need to give community members, particularly parents and students, a snapshot of what’s happening,” Owens said. “But we need to make sure that snapshot accurately depicts the schools.”

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