STATE REPORT CARDS: A battle over bad numbers from bad tests

By Jason Hawk -

This snapshot from Wellington’s state report card shows an 81.8 percent rating when it comes to indicators met on the PARCC exams. But how useful was the data?

This snapshot from Wellington’s state report card shows an 81.8 percent rating when it comes to indicators met on the PARCC exams. But how useful was the data?

An overall C grade, combined with a smattering of A’s and B’s, paints a middling-to-bad picture of the performance of Wellington public school teachers and students last year.

But are the grades on Ohio’s annual school report cards accurate?

We’ve spent considerable time in the last few weeks piling through the data and speaking to education experts about what the numbers mean — and have generally concluded the report cards to be worthless.

In January, the state released graduation rates for the more than 800 school districts across Ohio. Wellington graduated 87.7 percent of students in a four-year window and 92.1 percent of students within an extra year.

In late February, the second, larger body of the report card was released.

Wellington scored a 76.9 percent rating for overall performance with problems noted in the areas of fifth and seventh grade math, seventh grade reading, 10th grade science, and high school history.

Wellington kids made strides overall over the course of the year, whether gifted or challenged, scoring an A. But when it came to comparing the progress of white students to those of color or economic disadvantage, the story was different — a C grade.

Wellington also brought home a B for K-3 literacy.

“The district is in the Ohio Improvement Process. We are getting support from the state of Ohio based on past report cards,” said district superintendent Dennis Mock.

He sent a mass email Friday to teachers, thanking them for working hard and making strides on the report card.

Some low student grades came this past year as part of Ohio’s disastrous experiment with Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career tests, which state legislators have since abandoned.

The tests were based on the Common Core curriculum — English and math standards, adopted in 43 states, including Ohio. Proponents say they emphasize critical thinking over rote memorization and better prepare students for college and careers while increasing teacher accountability.

However, they were highly unpopular among some Lorain County parents, who withheld their children from testing. That lowered report card grades.

In Wellington, about 30 kids — 2.5 percent of the student population — declined to take the tests. “A lot of the parents did not trust the test and therefore the validity of the test,” Mock said.

Of the roughly 42,000 public school students in Lorain County, just 1,000 — about two percent — had their parents opt them out of the tests, according to Greg Ring, superintendent of the Educational Service Center of Lorain County, which represents county superintendents.

However, 325 of the 1,000 were Firelands students, said Firelands superintendent Mike Von Gunten.

Firelands parent Angela Crawford said she had her son, now a seventh-grader, and daughter, now a second-grader, opt out. She had her children skip the tests because the tests and the Common Core curriculum they were based on were irrelevant.

“None of what is on these tests has any bearing on what they’re going to do in their life,” Crawford told Firelands board of education members at a March 28 special board meeting. “Telling me that my second-grader needs to be college and career ready at the age of seven? I don’t think so.”

Firelands received a D grade for overall performance and F’s in several areas, including how students succeed regardless of ethnicity, income, or special needs.

Ben Gibson, father of three and president of the Firelands board of education, wrote a scathing letter to Ohio school board members, saying he is disgusted with the district’s report card ratings.

“Our district, previously labeled with characteristics of excellence and distinction, has been berated by the same state with D’s and F’s,” he wrote.

“So what has changed in the last two to three years? School districts have been forced to comply with federal and state strong-arming and top-down governance with a complete loss of local control, while being mandated to enforce Common Core, PARCC standardized testing, the Third Grade Reading Guarantee, Ohio Teacher Evaluation System, and Ohio Principal Evaluation System with minimal effective implementation practices,” his letter said. “Well our community fought back and, due to the overwhelming grassroots resistance in the state, the PARCC test was abolished. Yet we are still being ‘graded’ on the same test that was deemed ineffective and unreliable by the state of Ohio.”

Gibson also took aim at diversion of public school funds to “incompetent charter schools with no governance, transparency, or proof of actual value,” which are not held to the same mandates.

“How can two completely different models of best educational practices be funded by the same foundation and both deemed worthy? And here’s the kicker, these unjust practices were enforced by the same state departments that have been embarrassed with lies, corruption, and resignations. Yet here we are 120 miles from Columbus defending the ‘grade’ bestowed upon us from the same agency that has created every barricade and obstacle in our path,” he wrote.

Gibson isn’t alone among school board members and school administrators in his frustration.

Mike Molnar oversees testing as director of educational services for the Amherst Schools. He has been investigating discrepancies in the 2015 value-added report card grades — specifically, comparing scores of kids who took the tests by paper-and-pencil to those who took them online.

“Knowing that teaching and instruction methods have only improved during that time period, we began to suspect a problem with testing method reliability,” he said in a written statement.

Harris Elementary School tested all students and subjects using the online PARCC assessments and received four F’s. Nord Middle School also did online testing with the same results.

By contrast, Amherst Junior High School tested all students in mathematics using the online PARCC assessments, but used paper and pencil on English and language arts exams. The junior high received three A’s and a C.

That later grade, Molnar note, was demoted from a B due to a penalty in the special education participation rate because of testing opt-outs.

Molnar reached out to every school district in Ohio and within three days found a disturbing trend.

Of those schools that used paper and pencils, 85 percent received an A for their “added value” grade — while 62 percent of those that used online testing got F’s.

“An astonishing” 80 districts dropped from an A in 2014 to an F in 2015 on the value-added measure, which shows how students progress over the course of a year, Molnar said.

Another report by the Ohio Education Policy Institute blasted the PARCC testing, finding “significant achievement disparities between economically disadvantaged students and their peers.”

The Ohio School Boards Association, Buckeye Association of School Administrators, and Ohio Association of School Business Officials requested the analysis, which was prepared by OEPI consultant Howard Fleeter.

It found districts with 90 to 100 percent economically disadvantaged students had an average performance rating of 72.8. At the other end of the spectrum, districts with only up to 10 percent economically disadvantaged students had an average performance rating of 103.3.

Not all school systems were unhappy with their state grades.

Neighboring Keystone earned A’s in overall added value, nurturing both gifted students and those with special needs, and its five-year graduation rate. The district also improved its K-3 literacy scores and beat the state average on 90 percent of the tests.

“Considering the more rigorous tests and the negative effects they had on many districts across the state, we are excited that we showed positive growth and improvement,” said curriculum coordinator Dave Kish. “These high scores were earned despite Keystone having the 20th most opt-outs in the state. If the state discounted opt-outs from our scores, we would have received higher letter grades in three additional areas.”

Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter. Reporter Evan Goodenow contributed to this story.

This snapshot from Wellington’s state report card shows an 81.8 percent rating when it comes to indicators met on the PARCC exams. But how useful was the data? snapshot from Wellington’s state report card shows an 81.8 percent rating when it comes to indicators met on the PARCC exams. But how useful was the data?

By Jason Hawk