Ohio legislators are poised to consider a broad overhaul of the state’s testing and accountability systems this spring, following the release of a long-awaited report calling for new standards-based assessments, greater academic support for students, and a program of rewards and penalties for schools.
The report by the Governor’s Commission on Student Success, a 33-member panel appointed by Gov. Bob Taft last spring, was widely praised by both Democrats and Republicans as a prescription for needed changes for Ohio schools. Lawmakers have indicated that enacting many of the changes suggested in the report will be a priority in the legislative session that started last week.
In remarks following the report’s release last month, Gov. Taft said he supported many of the commission’s recommendations, including proposals to set up a system of early diagnostic assessments and interventions at the elementary level and to create a new system of end-of-course exams in high school.
The commission also called for doing away with the state’s controversial 4th grade “reading guarantee,” scheduled to be implemented starting in the spring of 2002, that would require students to score at proficient levels on state reading tests to advance to 5th grade.
“As we implement and transition to these recommendations, it will be important that we not lose the impetus and momentum for school improvement I have observed in classrooms in all regions of our state,” Mr. Taft, a Republican, told commission members after the report’s release, while pledging to make their proposals a budgetary priority. “I want you to know I am in this for the long haul.”
Ohio education officials are already taking on the commission’s first recommendation: the creation of new, clear state standards. The Cambridge, Mass.-based organization Achieve reported in 1999, and the commission report reiterated, that Ohio’s lack of explicit grade-by-grade standards has hindered its other education improvement efforts.
To change that, a joint council made up of members of the state board of education and the state board of regents has already written draft standards in English/language arts and mathematics. It plans to work on draft standards in science, social studies, and technology early this year.
“It’s a very sensible plan,” said Jennifer L. Vranek, the director of benchmarking and state services for Achieve, a nonprofit group created by state and business leaders to promote standards-based initiatives aimed at raising student achievement. “The challenge with the standards will be to make sure that they are not only clear and concise, but also as rigorous as they need to be.”
Once the standards are set, the report recommends, the state should phase out its existing proficiency tests and replace them with tests tied to the new standards.
The current 4th grade tests, which cover five subjects over five consecutive days—a format many parents and teachers have complained is excessively stressful for students—would be eliminated in favor of achievement tests spread over three years. The tests, the report suggests, should cover reading in the 3rd grade, mathematics and writing in the 4th grade, and science and social studies in the 5th grade.
But even as the commission recommends changing the format of the 4th grade tests, and eliminating a requirement that all students who fail to pass the reading portion of the tests be held back in 4th grade, the panel members do not suggest doing away with the state’s so-called reading guarantee altogether.
Instead, they propose mandating that schools provide lots of extra help to students who do not pass the reading assessment in the 3rd grade, and giving local officials the discretion to decide whether to retain students who still cannot pass the test by the end of the 4th grade.
“The commission believes much more must be done to make sure students can read,” the report says. “We believe that in some cases local schools should decide that retaining a student is the appropriate intervention, but we do not believe that retention should be required by state law.”
Despite the proposed changes, the report didn’t entirely satisfy critics of the current state policies surrounding the 4th grade tests.
Michael Billirakis, the president of the Ohio Education Association, said he was still concerned about what the commission’s recommendations, if adopted by the legislature, would mean for students who simply can’t meet the state’s proficiency requirements.
“Will we have a 14-year-old in 4th grade?” Mr. Billirakis said. “That’s a question that has to be addressed by the community as a whole. We want to make sure certain students who simply don’t do well on state tests aren’t left behind because of some phobia they have of the tests themselves.”
And Rep. Bryan Flannery, a Democrat who served on the commission, said he was troubled by the report’s implication that the current 4th grade tests should continue to be given until they can be replaced by the standards-based, multigrade tests.
It would be a waste of time, money, and effort, the state lawmaker argued, to continue administering a test that “everyone agrees is no good.”
“We require them to sit down and take a whole week of tests, [and] local districts have to spend a lot of money on these tests, for what benefit?” Mr. Flannery said. “It has nothing to do with learning.”
The commission’s recommendations for a new system of high school testing evoked less criticism, however.
The report suggests that the current high school exit exam, a test covering basic 8th grade knowledge and skills, be replaced by a policy requiring students to pass a certain number of end-of- course exams in various core academic subjects in order to graduate.
Alternatively, students could opt out of the end-of-course exams by passing a cumulative standards-based test at the 10th grade level.
The commission argues that such a system would provide flexibility for both students and schools.
“Not every student would have to take every mathematics or science course, but each student would have to take more than most do now,” the report says.
A Shift to Schools
Rounding out the recommended changes, the commission suggests replacing the state’s current accountability system— which focuses on district-level reporting and improvement plans—with one that would hold individual schools responsible for students’ academic achievement and improvement.
In addition to putting a new focus on school-level reporting, the state should put in place a system that provides help to low- performing schools and districts, while offering monetary and other rewards to schools and districts making annual progress, the report recommends.
Finally, the report suggests that the legislature authorize the state to intervene in schools that consistently fail—replacing teachers and administrators, or closing the schools down.
Those changes would give Ohio a much more balanced accountability system than it has now, Ms. Vranek of Achieve said.
“There has been a lot of system pressure on students without a corresponding pressure on the adults and education administrators who have to help students meet high standards,” Ms. Vranek said. “And the districts have been sentenced to a lifetime of improvement planning without any real sanctions, incentives, or help.”
But even as education experts and lawmakers welcomed the commission’s report as a good starting point for improvement, many agreed that the changes would amount to little without adequate funding.
Any efforts to address the commission’s proposals will “dovetail nicely” with the legislature’s efforts to enact a school funding fix that will satisfy the Ohio Supreme Court, said Sen. Robert A. Gardner, a Republican who chairs the Senate’s education committee.
In its second ruling against the state in an ongoing school funding lawsuit, DeRolph v. The State of Ohio, the state supreme court last May gave lawmakers one year to approve a system of school funding that would meet state constitutional requirements for a “thorough and efficient” education system.
Still, Mr. Gardner said of the commission’s recommendations, “I think some of this can be done without an excessive amount of money.”
But Martha W. Wise, the president of the state board of education and a member of the governor’s commission, said even in the board’s $14.3 billion biennial budget proposal—which includes a spending increase of roughly 11 percent in fiscal 2002 and 10 percent in 2003—there wouldn’t be enough money for everything.
“Especially if we have to intervene at the state level, we don’t have money in the budget for that kind of intervention,” said Ms. Wise, who supported a more ambitious increase in state school aid during the board’s budget negotiations. “It depends on the will of the legislature.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 2001 edition of Education Week as Ohio Eyes Sweeping Testing And Accountability Changes