Educators urge overhaul of report cards

April Helms
Kent Weeklies
Two senators are sponsoring a bill that, if approved, would have the state petition the federal government to temporarily waive testing due to the pandemic.

Area educators and the Ohio Education Association are weighing in on proposed changes to the state's testing regime, with the OEA proposing an “overhaul the state’s broken report cards once and for all.”

“These latest school and district report cards shine a spotlight on the major problems with the entire report card scheme,” OEA President Scott DiMauro said. “The fact that the state recognizes that any 2020 letter grades and rankings would be useless without spring testing data proves just how overly-reliant the existing grade card system is on standardized tests. If the essential value of the state’s report card system is standardized test results -- which do not accurately represent how a student, teacher or school is performing -- the state’s current report card system has no value at all.

“These tests and the algebraic contortions the state’s report card system twists them into have always been stacked against low-income students, especially. OEA is not afraid of accountability. But the state must design a fair, informative, and transparent accountability system.”

A state senate bill, introduced Aug. 27 and referred to the education committee on Sept. 1, sponsored by Teresa Fedor (D-Toledo) and Nathan H. Manning (R-North Ridgeville), would “provide flexibility and support to Ohio's schools through the 2020-2021 school year by extending provisions made in House Bills 164 and 197 this spring,” according to a joint statement sent Aug. 27 from both senators.

Nathan H. Manning (R-North Ridgeville)
Teresa Fedor (D-Toledo)

According to the joint statement, Senate Bill 358 provides an extension of the enacted education moratoriums House Bills 164 and 197 provided as emergency relief for Ohio’s families and schools during the Covid-19, including:

  • Waiving cancelled end-of-course tests and requiring the Ohio Department of Education to request a waiver for federally mandated assessments;
  • Freezing report cards and related negative sanctions including new state takeovers and EdChoice districts; and
  • Extending teacher and principal evaluations, student promotions and graduation flexibility for the 2020-21 school year.

Local superintendents, school officials voice opinions

Stow-Munroe Falls City School District Superintendent Tom Bratten said that with 22% of his district's students learning remotely right now, it is "extremely difficult to proctor assessments based on the state's requirements for testing security. In many cases it just can’t be done nor guaranteed."

Therefore, Bratten said he "wholeheartedly" felt that "the testing waivers should remain and testing should not occur." Tax money could be directed toward other facets of the education system, according to Bratten.

He also noted that district staff members are already conducting their own assessments of student progress.

"We hire great educators who know how to assess their students and gauge their progress and they do it every single day with a number of assessment tools currently," said Bratten. "We are not waiting for a state test to tell us where a student is in his/her progress. We are discovering that all the time on our own in the classroom and adjusting our delivery focus accordingly. No matter what the future holds for the report cards, we will continue to assess, evaluate, and work incredibly hard on improving our practices moving forward."

Superintendent Joe Clark with the Nordonia Hills City Schools said that while he supported parts of the Senate bill, he “adamantly opposes to the voucher system this bill continues.”

“It’s a travesty Ledgeview is seen as an underperforming school, and there is no legitimate reason students should be able to take public tax dollars to attend private schools,” Clark said.

Twinsburg Superintendent Kathryn Powers said that she, too, supported the federal testing waiver provisions, since “I believe there will be continued COVID-19 disruptions throughout the course of the school year.” However, she added she was concerned about how the state assessments could impact the district because of the Twinsburg Virtual Academy.

"The issue of how to address test administration for students attending school virtually is impacting the administration of state assessments right now as demonstrated by the fact that our Twinsburg Virtual Academy students are not able to meet the in-person requirement mandated in the administration of the kindergarten readiness assessment,” Powers said. “Further, the fall administration of the third grade English Language Arts assessment is right around the corner. Again, how do you administer a secured in-person state test for students who are learning virtually?”

Walter Davis, the superintendent of the Woodridge Local Schools, said he believed that full waivers should be extended and that testing should not occur.

“Thirty-four percent of our students are learning remotely,” Davis said. “They are not on campus. The parameters for state testing that require strict test security would be nearly impossible to implement in the current environment. We have plenty of locally created assessment tools that can and do provide appropriate insight into the progress our students are making and have made. The state should let us handle our own assessment and save the millions and millions of dollars wasted on these state tests and report cards each year.”

However, Davis added he wasn’t the waivers would be granted because of the need for federal approval of such waivers.

“The US Secretary of Education has stated that she does not plan to approve waivers, however, so I don’t see how Ohio will get around the federal testing requirements,” Davis said.

Nichols said that he hoped " that relief from state assessments continues." 

"Given that districts are designing approaches to education in the pandemic era based upon a multitude of factors, we are designing our own internal mechanisms to monitor student growth and achievement," Nichols said.

Tallmadge City Schools Superintendent Jeff Ferguson said the district is "kind of hoping to see this resolved relatively soon" since some of the state testing is scheduled to take place in a month. 

"I do think it’s important we recognize the different models that kids across the state that kids are being educated under, and the rippling effect are the different testing situations," Ferguson said. "A quarter of our kids right now are enrolled in our virtual school."

How will those students, who are taking their classes at home, be tested, Ferguson said. Also, what about students who are only taking classes in the building part of the week?

"I think they also recognize that this pandemic has shown us and shown the state the digital divide in this state," Ferguson said. "Families in poverty are at a disadvantage with technology availability and internet availability."

Ferguson said that the district has received grants to help connect families without adequate access to laptops or internet access.In addition, the district purchased Chromebooks for students who needed them through a grant, and is currently applying for other state grants.

Jeff Hostetler, the Tallmadge schools treasurer, said the district received a Broadband Ohio Connectivity for about $58,000 to help establish wifi hotspots around district property for students to use if they need.

Ferguson said that the priority for districts at this time needs to be in educating its students across the different platforms.

"I certainly do understand the need for some accountability," Ferguson said. "It is my hope is if there is some compromise and there is some testing, that some of the high stakes testing are waived."

Tests such as the third grade reading guarantee and the graduation test will add stress on students and their families, who are already stressed due to the pandemic, Ferguson said.

Hudson Superintendent Phil Herman said that he supported the Senate bill " and the flexibility the provisions could provide to school districts in responding to COVID-19 disruptions to the educational process."

"The educational circumstances our students have been experiencing since March will adversely impact the reliability of value-added data and student growth measure data," Herman said. "The proposed changes will provide flexibility within the state of Ohio and within districts so that the focus can remain on the student learning experience and the results of local assessments that help shape those experiences."

OEA supports SB358

The OEA has spoken in favor of the Senate bill.

“Due to COVID-19, school districts will continue to experience barriers to education service delivery and instability in student data (particularly in districts with high concentrations of poverty). It would be misleading and unfair to require report card grades or punitive measures based on report card data during this time,” OEA Vice President Jeff Wensing said.

However, “much more work is needed to address the foundational issues with Ohio’s current school report card system,” DiMauro said.

“The cookie-cutter A-F grades are a meaningless and simplistic way to describe students’ educational experiences,” DiMauro said. “All they accurately measure are a student’s and district’s wealth. Using these tests to punish low-income students by providing cover for taxpayer money to be diverted to worse-performing private and charter schools while undermining local control in poor districts is a stain on Ohio’s education system. The state needs a truly informative accountability system that fairly identifies improvement areas while empowering stakeholders to direct resources where they are needed most. That – rather than punishing poor kids and schools – should be lawmakers’ guiding light.”

Reporter April Helms can be reached at ahelms@recordpub.com