The decision by the Ohio Department of Education to delay submitting the state's education plan to federal regulators is raising local educators' hopes that their voices may be heard.

Ohio Schools Superintendent Paolo DeMaria announced March 13 that the state will delay until September its submission of its Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) plan to allow time to create "greater unity and a clearer sense of direction."

"I didn't want submission (of the plan) to be a divisive event," DeMaria said. "Additional time will allow us (to have) conversations that need to be had."

In January, ODE released a draft on how it will implement the federal government's new criteria in the ESSA, which will replace the No Child Left Behind. The state's draft of compliance with the federal ESSA aims to guide student testing, course standards and other school-related issues.

The 118-page report included descriptions of the state's learning standards; an explanation of testing requirements; descriptions of the state's goals for student performance and improvement; outlines of how the state supports struggling schools and districts; and a review of report cards and other measures to inform about school progress.

The state's new testing and accountability plan -- required under ESSA, the federal law replacing the controversial No Child Left Behind law -- proposes no changes in student testing, prompting complaints from educators, parents and others.

According to the Akron Area School Superintendents' Association (AASSA), the state had been hosting regional meetings and webinars to allow educators, parents and community members to voice their opinions. However, said the Association at the draft's release, its members "are alarmed that the feedback gathered during these stakeholder meetings does not appear to have been included in Ohio's plan."

"Obviously, I am very pleased that ODE has postponed submitting the state's plan to the Department of Education and believe that the ongoing advocacy work of school district leaders across Ohio was instrumental in the decision to do so," said Walter Davis, president of the AASSA and superintendent of Woodridge Local Schools.

"I know that our members are cautiously optimistic, pleased that the delay has been announced, and hopeful that the review that our State Superintendent has announced will be thorough and inclusive. We are hopeful that representative members of our Association, and the other Superintendents' Associations across Ohio, will be at the table to assist in the work that will be required to revise the plan," Davis added.

Stow-Munroe Falls City Schools Superintendent Tom Bratten said he "was truly surprised" by the delay.

"I was very disappointed in their going forward so fast, especially since they implemented nothing we suggested. I'm hoping this is a good sign that they will," he added. "I plan to keep advocating right along with my fellow superintendents, educators, and parents to push for our educational leaders at the state level and our legislators to do what is the best interests of these children."

He echoed Davis' "cautious" optimism. "I am very excited about the delay. I'm hoping that it is sending the message that we will be listened to, not just heard. I am hoping the delay means that serious consideration will be given to the changes we are recommending to be implemented such as decreased testing, report card changes, changes in high school end-of-course exams, and revamping of so many unnecessary mandates that really don't increase performance but instead decrease students wanting to be here and staffs having to reassess the value of what they are doing to address the needs of the whole child, not just what they are valued on currently -- test scores."

Melissa Cropper, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, said: "Missing from the draft ESSA plan as it stands is a vision for reshaping our current education system to be more reflective of what students truly need. We are committed to working with Superintendent DeMaria to craft a plan that changes our education culture from one that currently focuses on testing, sorting, labeling and punishing to a culture that focuses on student well-being, promotes powerful learning, builds teacher capacity and fosters collaboration."

"In my 25+ years in education, there has never been a greater need than right now to help our students on a social/emotional level. Our staffs are taxed trying to help students in so many ways and I argue that we can't be as effective as we need to be on educating the whole child anymore due to all of these regulations," said Bratten. "We have so many students going through so many problems regarding life in general, but we can't have the time and resources we need to implement the programs we know will have a greater impact."

Testing remains an issue

Federal law still requires accountability from states and local districts that public school students are being taught appropriately and being prepared for future college coursework and careers.

That means Ohio's new plan still requires testing in reading, mathematics, science and other standards, but the state will set those standards rather than being required to meet a plan mandated by the federal government.

Excessive testing -- some of it used exclusively to evaluate teachers -- was the top concern expressed about the proposed ESSA plan during the public hearings.

Participants had urged the state to reduce the amount of testing, which is allowable under ESSA; however, according to AASSA, the proposed plan maintains the existing levels of testing.

"This is also an opportunity to reduce testing at the high school and replace the end of course exams with the nationally normed ACT or SAT, which are more relevant to our students and their families. All state mandated testing should be consistently maintained for an extended period of time to allow for longitudinal data collection and analysis," noted AASSA.

Department officials have cautioned that many of the tests students take are mandated by state law, and the legislature would need to change laws to eliminate them. Ohio requires students to take 24 assessments, including 17 required by the federal government. That does not include tests to evaluate teachers and those required by school districts.

A recent analysis by the education department found that students spend 215 hours from kindergarten through 12th grade on testing, or 1.7 percent of their time in school. About one-third of the hours are mandated by the state.

"There is a clear voice out there for less testing," DeMaria said.

"The fundamental problem is that most stakeholders were asking for changes in state law, and those should be undertaken by the General Assembly and not via a plan created by the Ohio Department of Education to comply with federal law," said Chad Aldis, vice president for Ohio policy and advocacy for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Changes in the state report card system were also recommended by the AASSA. The Association recommended the elimination of the letter grade report card system. While ESSA does mandate an accountability measure, it does not require using a letter grade to rate school buildings or districts. "The repeated changes in the report card have also made it confusing and meaningless to parents and community members," said the Association.

"During the feedback period, a wide array of useful suggestions were provided to ODE. When the initial plan was presented, we were stunned that few, if any, of the suggestions were included in the plan," said Davis. "Now, we are hopeful that this review will provide the opportunity for these ideas to be implemented. We believe the ideas shared will strengthen Ohio's plan."

Bratten told the Stow Sentry he is "honestly not sure" about how much ODE will listen to educators, especially in the field of testing.

"I hope they do. We are earnestly begging them to. There are so many initiatives, and so many important things we need to be doing that we can't because of this need to test students all year long and put all of our attention into it," Bratten said. "I tell our educators all the time that we are not going to place the value of them as educators nor the value of our students as people on a test score."

He added, "Please don't get me wrong, I totally believe in accountability and I always will. I believe that our staffs and students should be held accountable for the success our students have, but I cannot and do not agree that that accountability should be a single or even multiple tests in a single place in time. It's surely not how I value my own children, and I never want our staffs to value their students that way either."

Editor's note: Catherine Candisky of The Columbus Dispatch contributed to this report.

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