After decades of tinkering with state school report cards, Ohio lawmakers might be thinking about a bigger-than-usual makeover — or, some fear, doing away with them altogether.
The report cards have been problematic from the start, because they attempt to describe something very complex — a school’s effectiveness — with a single mark, and because the General Assembly has attached painful consequences to unfavorable report-card marks.
We have expressed concern about these problems, but we don’t favor ditching report cards. Even if Ohio had no school choice, it would be important for the public to understand where a given public school is succeeding and where it is struggling. And with Ohio’s system of charter schools and private-school vouchers as options, it’s even more important to provide objective, standardized information about school performance.
The state Department of Education’s report cards came about as part of a Republican-led drive for accountability in the 1990s. Frustrated with what they saw as decades of declining student performance with no consequences for schools, leading lawmakers insisted the state should set standards and hold schools and students to them.
Thus came what critics call "high-stakes testing" — ninth-grade proficiency tests for students, who couldn’t graduate without passing them, and standardized tests for multiple subjects and grade levels, with schools rated by how many students pass. Low passing rates could trigger state intervention and other unhappy consequences.
The idea was that the threat of repercussions would spur schools to finally focus harder on student success.
But of course the challenges facing public schools were not just a matter of teachers not trying hard enough, and the years since have brought a near-constant churn of changing standards, testing methods, incentives and penalties. Many times, lawmakers have talked tough while enacting high standards and severe penalties, only to roll them back once harsh consequences start threatening their constituents’ schools.
That’s the dynamic at work right now in the push to change the criteria for who can receive vouchers for private-school tuition via the EdChoice program. Over time the conservative-dominated General Assembly has expanded eligibility so much that, unless a new House plan is approved, vouchers could be available next year to students in some of Ohio’s highest-performing school districts, including Upper Arlington and Bexley.
Some are blaming the report cards for the mess. Democratic state Sen. Teresa Fedor of Toledo says they’re "rigged" against public schools; even House Speaker Larry Householder, a conservative Republican, has said that the report cards create "more opportunities for private schools to take public kids out of their system."
Traditional critics of report cards and standardized testing, including teachers’ unions, typically have said they welcome accountability and oppose only its punitive use.
Ohio’s majority Republicans could give them a chance to prove that, by focusing on making the report cards more valid and ending their direct link to punishing sanctions.
As schools struggle to find what works, a tool for meaningful, fair evaluation is critical. If lawmakers must have a single, summative mark, points on a scale of 0 to 100 would allow for a bit more nuance than A through F.
But most schools are better at some things and less good at others, and different things are important to different families. Separate scores in a few key categories, with more-detailed information for those who want it, could be a good starting place.
— The Columbus Dispatch